God Help the Girl

God Help the Girl

(Matador; 2009)

By Andrew Hall | 25 June 2009

I can’t tell what God Help the Girl is exactly. The accompanying press release says something about it being the soundtrack to a musical film, but this thing hasn’t been shot yet and may never be. These are supposedly new Stuart Murdoch songs, and Belle and Sebastian is still his backing band, but this isn’t billed as a Belle and Sebastian record and it doesn’t sound like a continuation of that band’s glam-tinged makeover. Plus, a number of other singers take precedence over Murdoch, predominantly Catherine Ireton, who ends up with the unfortunate task of having to win over both newcomers and B&S obsessives. The project’s website says something about Murdoch wanting to start a girl group and that sort of describes the results, but not totally. It’s a confusing, occasionally frustrating listen, one that sits somewhere near career low point Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (2000) in that it spends more time sprawling out than holding together.

The biggest shock, simply based on her being all over the record, is Ireton. Her voice compared to Murdoch’s is huge, and hearing a strong singer supporting a band that’s never had one is a strange thing, especially since Murdoch is trying to use Belle and Sebastian as a backing band, which it functionally is not. The songs lean heavily on big string arrangements and Ireton and company dominate the mix with a kind of verve Murdoch, or maybe even Belle & Sebastian, rarely has. The album’s Northern Soul makeover of Life Pursuit (2006) single “Funny Little Frog” is a perfect example: Murdoch’s awkwardness—remember how he ended the chorus by pronouncing “throat” as “throw-it”—is smoothed out completely and singer Brittany Stallings plays it completely straight, puts a ton of power into the chorus, and gives no weight at all to the final line. It’s a confounding performance she wields, moreso knowing these are still Murdoch’s words and melodies and how it’s always been sexual inadequacy, not assertiveness, that got him into the collective heart of his fans.

There’s also the issue of the inexplicable disconnect between Murdoch’s songs written about girls, which are consistently quite good, and his songs written to be sung by girls, which don’t work very often. His most memorable success in this fact of Stuart Murdoch’s life is still the Isobel Campbell-sung “Family Tree” from Fold Your Hands Child. There, her restrained defiance came across as completely irresistible, but here on “God Help the Girl,” Ireton sounds charmless; where Murdoch wrung a fantastic contrast out of Campbell’s hushed claim that she yelled at all her teachers, Ireton delivers something like “you have been warned, I’m going to be contrary” atop a soaring string arrangement. Hearing about taking drugs and why she doesn’t eat meat on “Musicians Please Take Heed” amounts to boring exposition, and whatever storytelling’s going on doesn’t compensate for the lack of details and general sense of insincerity. Closer “A Down and Dusky Blonde” gets lost under its many singers, none of whom quite seem to fit, and Murdoch does himself no favors by taking only one lead on the unbearably baroque “Pretty Eve in the Tub” and allowing several annoying melodies in succession.

When Murdoch doesn’t get bogged down in trying to develop characters, if that’s what he’s trying to do here, or push at a larger narrative (see the title track), or his singers don’t completely overpower the band, it yields songs like “If You Could Speak,” which works entirely because Ireton and Anna Miles aren’t at odds with either the quieter arrangement or Murdoch’s verses, and “Come Monday Night,” which, when Ireton’s vocals actually prove complementary, comes closest to pulling off that flimsy girl group idea Murdoch has. In that light, “I’ll Have To Dance With Cassie” is the project’s most natural result; Ireton is able to inhabit one of Murdoch’s protagonists instead of forcing a blatant interpretation down the song’s throat (throw-it).

It just simply seems that Stuart Murdoch isn’t a very portable songwriter: he may be able to write Stuart Murdoch songs for Stuart Murdoch, but translated to anything but his music frequently exhibits its participants’ weaknesses, and the end result is unsettling and unfulfilling like few Belle and Sebastian products are.

:: myspace.com/pleasegodhelpthegirl