Belle and Sebastian, "The Life Pursuit"
Once the cult band of choice for bookish intellectuals and other nervous souls, Belle and Sebastian have gradually reinvented and beefed up their sound to appeal to a whole new world of pop fans, not least international music critics. They've come a long way over the course of six albums, as the Guardian (three stars out of five) points out: "The idea of Belle and Sebastian decamping to LA to work with a big-name producer would once have seemed as improbable as Belle and Sebastian driving a Harley-Davidson around a hotel suite filled with empty Jack Daniel's bottles and coked-out nymphettes." Still, says Pitchfork (rating 8.5), it's been a fruitful trip: "Belle and Sebastian seem to have found new life in their evolution from shy bedsit savants to showy pop adepts."
"The Life Pursuit" isn't Belle and Sebastian's first foray into the world of high-gloss hit-making; 2003's "Dear Catastrophe Waitress" featured maverick pop schlock guru Trevor Horn pushing the buttons. But for Spin, some momentum has in fact been lost with the switch to California-based rock producer Tony Hoffer following "Dear Catastrophe Waitress": "After that hearty, rewarding belly flop, 'The Life Pursuit' is a series of cautious toe-dips," says the magazine, before going on to mix aquatic metaphors, "Hoffer preserves Horn's professional sheen but not his swinging charm, leaving us with all bathwater and no baby."
NME (nine out of 10), by contrast, sees Belle and Sebastian ever more at ease after their emigration from the fragile, acoustic fringes: "There's a real confidence here, not quite a strut, but definitely a swagger," the magazine states, before observing that the band is "still perverse, still twee, but strong enough to take on the bullies." Slant Magazine (four and a half stars out of five) continues the fighting talk, describing "Belle and Sebastian competing in a whole new weight class" with an enhanced sound. And how will the bookish intellectuals reconcile themselves to this cultivation of a new fan base? Not to worry, says Pitchfork: "'The Life Pursuit' is a baroque pop cathedral, welcoming the faithful and newly converted alike."
Beth Orton, "Comfort of Strangers"
By her own admission, Beth Orton's last album, "Daybreaker," was something of a disappointment. "I just felt like I was going through the motions and I wasn't putting myself on the line enough," she tells Harp magazine. She tells a story by way of illustration: "A friend of mine, her mom's a painter, and sometimes her mom thinks the painting is shit, so she goes back to it and back to it. In the end, she paints over everything that was good, and it's just a big lumpy painting, and it's just not good anymore."
No such over-embellishment is in evidence with "Comfort of Strangers." Orton has abandoned the electronic influences of previous work, trading longtime collaborators the Chemical Brothers for former Sonic Youth man and alt-rock godfather Jim O'Rourke, latterly known for his efforts behind Wilco's mixing desk. The results, as Gigwise (four and a half stars out of five) notes with approval, could not be further from a big lumpy painting: "With minimal overdubs or mucking about, the album was recorded mostly as one take, two max, and has the freshness of a spring breeze."
Billboard, in praising "a lovely set of pop-flavored neo-folk," comments that, while Orton's voice "has always suggested hidden reserves of strength," O'Rourke's production and "the new songs' more traditional structures showcase that backbone." Amazon concurs that "Comfort of Strangers" exposes "Orton's vocal style at its most unstudied and unvarnished," and observes that this "focuses all the more attention on her songwriting." Happily, Amazon finds this her "most musically spare and artistically complex to date," while the San Francisco Chronicle (five out of five) is similarly effusive: "It's a high-minded and stunning offering, full of elegant poetry and even more elegant philosophy."
Dem Franchise Boyz, "On Top of Our Game"
On the back of some wildly popular singles -- including the spookily minimalist and furiously catchy "I Think They Like Me" -- Atlanta's Dem Franchise Boyz attempt to translate their club-friendly beat, sometimes called "Snap," to album format. But first, the Boyz explain the logic behind the record's stripped-down sound in this interview with All Hip-Hop.com: "You can get crunk [and be able to] sip on your Grey Goose, holding your cup in your hand. You dont have to worry about spilling your liquor on the dance floor and getting it all over your thousand-dollar outfit."
As for the critics, no one seems to be in any particular danger of spilling their vodka in excitement over "On Top of Our Game." Billboard offers some cautious approval: "While the songs become monotonous after a while they do get the job done." The New York Times, meanwhile, is rather more forthcoming, finding it "a modest but consistently entertaining CD, not least because the rappers step lightly around the beats that inevitably steal the show." As with most dance music, the lyrical complexity takes a distant back seat to more visceral concerns on "On Top of Our Game," but, for an exasperated Rolling Stone, "it's enough to induce nostalgia for the thoughtful proclamations of Lil Jon." Ultimately, says the magazine, the sound fails to fully make the transition from the club P.A. to the home stereo: "'On Top of Our Game's menacing boom may be ideal for stripping or fighting in parking lots, but as a straight listen it's monotonous and dispiriting."
-- Matt Glazebrook