Rough Trade, 2009
Sometimes there’s not a whole lot to say about an album that hasn’t already been written. In this case, it is Belle & Sebastian’s mastermind Stuart Murdoch’s God Help the Girl, a project long-time coming in execution, being first mentioned back in 2004. Murdoch has noted that the songs on this album were just not right for Belle & Sebastian’s Life Pursuit and so, this side project was born out of a now-famous advert requesting a female singer, the likes of which should intone “the Ronettes, Twinkle, and Friend and Lover.” And so the gem of Brittany Stallings was found, and Catherine Ireton was resurrected from her days as poster girl for “The White Collar Boy” single and singing guest on “Dress up in You.” Add Asya, from Smoosh, to the list and you’ve got a gaggle of ladies with husky, melancholic, warm voices that perfume the air in the tradition of Dusty Springfield, Ronnie Spector and ABBA.
It’s almost unfair to review an album that has basically, from its inception, turned out all of the information about it you could ever want — and now Murdoch is literally turning out more — with a pay-per-go subscription that will ensure the ultimate fan bonus EPs, physical copies of the record, along with oodles of other goodies. For Belle & Sebastian fans, this can only be a windfall. Even more so is the movie that’s reportedly in the works, with screenplay by Murdoch, that might turn up.
It’s not inconceivable. A documentary by Murdoch is also in play, and a lovely video of “Come Monday Night” popped up on PitchforkTV recently which really played up the high-contrast black and white images to echo the late ’50s/early ’60s feel of several songs on the album. With it, I’m reminded of Beautiful Thing, a touching 1996 coming of age drama set in gritty London featuring a character who was obsessed with Mama Cass (and a soundtrack to match). We hear traces of that, here, as the Mamas and the Papas seem to be figuratively scuttling about the recording studio.
Sometimes a fun album comes along, and you can’t help but just enjoy it. Thanks, Stuart Murdoch, for your contribution to that exclusive group. We’ve got it all here — ’50s girl groups, 3/3 waltz, full-on disco glam, hand-claps, snaps and whistling, replete. It succeeds in incorporating ABBA’s rhythms where Camera Obscura’s latest failed, which was physically sitting at ABBA’s grand piano, to boot.
Stand out tracks include “Pretty Eve in the Tub,” a duet with Murdoch and Catherine Ireton, “Funny Little Frog” that seeps Northern Soul (and the contest winner’s prize turn), “Musician Please Take Heed” with the aforementioned ABBA gold, and “Perfection as a Hipster,” in which Ireton duels with Mr. Divine Comedy himself, Neil Hannon. “Perfection,” particularly begins like The Jesus & Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey” and bleeds into a sassy little piece Ronnie Spector wouldn’t deny. Ireton shines on “Come Monday Night,” while Asya’s star turn comes on “I Just Want His Jeans” where her youth is played in its slight pout and cheekiness.
The final song, “A Down and Dusky Blonde” includes a bevy of Murdoch’s lady singers which practically explodes with talent, all while maintaining a melancholy tone: “But I need a friend and I choose you/I tell you the way I feel/The truth is crushing like a heel I will forget the kiss and feel/If you will too.”
God Help The Girl is about its protagonist, Eve, and supposedly tells a story but the plot is often nebulous and hard to pin-down. This is something that visuals would help with in the film version. Sure, Eve is obsessing over a boy — who isn’t? — but is there something else? This, like other Murdoch-helmed projects, is a slice-of-life piece without a whole lot of action. That’s ok, mostly, as the ability to glimpse into people’s mundane lives is part of its appeal. Another detractor is the instrumentals, namely “A Unified Theory”, that seem misplaced on an already short forty-four minute record. “A Unified Theory” is bizarre and could do for an inane Gene Kelly soft-shoe routine ala Xanadu.
If you have an existing knee-jerk reaction to the sounds of Stuart Murdoch’s voice, string arrangements and woo-girls, this may not be the album for you. Still, God Help the Girl might pick up a few fans in an older demographic who are easy to reminisce about Northern Soul. For everyone in the middle (and especially the fans), this is a shimmery album for the summer, so catchy that it’s hard to deny the appeal.