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Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance
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Irony abounds in the title of Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, the ninth album by the Scottish collective Belle & Sebastian. It goes unstated that the record was released in an atmosphere not quite synonymous with peace, but the group unquestionably want to dance, spending nearly half of this lengthy record grooving to a neo-disco beat. To approximate the pulse of a mirror ball, Belle & Sebastian hired Ben H Allen, a producer best known for his work with the modern psychedelic troupes Animal Collective and Washed Out, a decided shift away from the exquisitely sculpted miniatures that populated B&S' two records with Tony Hoffer, particularly Write About Love. If that 2010 album found the band embracing their eccentricities and taking the time to whittle their quirks down to their basic elements, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance finds the group stretching way out, twice taking as long as seven minutes to complete a cut and only once flirting with the three-minute mark. Surely, the grandest formal experiments are the longest tracks -- "Enter Sylvia Path" plays like a slyly decadent 12" mix and "Play for Today," featuring Dee Dee Penny of the Dum Dum Girls, is a duet with de facto leader Stuart Murdoch -- but even the relatively concise "The Party Line" bears a heavy four-four thump, and "Perfect Couples" percolates with polyrhythms previously unheard on Belle & Sebastian's records. Next to these brazen departures lie a few songs where flashy production tricks are grafted upon pleasingly familiar B&S forms (the hard swing and fuzz of "Allie," the analog whine on "The Power of Three," the Motown bounce of "The Book of You'), along with reassuringly meditative ballads and the remarkable "The Everlasting Muse," which takes a sharp left turn from jazz to woozy folk. This is the sound of a band that's growing fearless in middle age, and while the record occasionally does drag -- all those long songs push it over an hour, but the sequencing makes it feel even longer -- there's also a thrill hearing a band unafraid to stumble.
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This is their new album, and it didn't fail to blow me away. I had the opportunity to see this band live recently and see them perform many of the songs on this album. They say you can tell the quality of a band by the quality for their live performances and B&S certainly didn't disappoint.
The album begins with what was arguably their strongest song. They released Nobody's Empire to fans early on, and I found myself pleasantly surprised with how much it sounded like old B&S. The track is danceable -- in a B&S kind of way -- and the lyrics are especially poignant and thought-provoking, inducing nostalgia (the music video on Youtube only adds to/cements this nostalgic feeling.)
The songs on this album are catchy and this album is definitely worth a purchase. I bought the vinyl version and couldn't be happier with my purchase. Was happy to see the digital version was included to download as well. I'm grateful to this band for existing and continuing to create much-needed heartfelt music for today's world.
In fact, a lot of the album is the same old band that has persisted through a few instances of stylistic experimentation. The opening track "Nobody's Empire" is a recounting of Murdoch's years of illness in the early 1990s and features a fairly simple musical backing to keep that storytelling in the spotlight. "Ever Have a Little Faith?" could have fit in well on the band's 1998 release The Boy With the Arab Strap. On "The Cat with the Cream", a restrained social/political commentary, Stuart Murdoch's vocals and the musical accompaniment are just as delicate as on those classic B&S records that gave such solace to wistful, lonely young people two decades ago.
There are gorgeous moments here. Dee Dee Penny's guest vocals on "Play for Today" bring a breathy timbre never before head on a B&S track. "Enter Sylvia Plath" manages to combine old twee pop themes (drawing inspiration from old books, trying to find your path in life) with a great dance beat. Sarah Martin's "The Power of Three" is as uplifting as her contributions usually are, even if its exact theme remains mysterious (having a child? living in a menage à trois?). The same is true of Martin's other contribution, "The Book of You".
It's by no means one of the best entries in Belle and Sebastian's catalogue. I find "The Everlasting Muse" and (Stevie Jackson's one contribution) "Perfect Couples" to be overlong, built up from a series of individual passages that amount to only a rickety whole. Still, as a listener who has followed this band's output chronologically, I think they are still making satisfying music and I've been putting GIRLS IN PEACETIME WANT TO DANCE on just as much as earlier albums.