Let’s face it – despite its penchant for whimsy and sprightliness, indie pop band Belle and Sebastian remains among the most divisive acts of our time. They may be perched in the upper echelon of indie music’s infamously dogmatic coterie, but the Scottish septet is also perennially categorized as precious – a word that, in these circles, has an effect similar to that of a presidential candidate whose name and “scandal” appear in the same sentence.
I’ll admit that my introduction to the Glasgow collective was not one of positive affirmation. It came in 2000, as I heard Jack Black’s character – the deliciously pretentious record store clerk Barry – deride Belle and Sebastian as “old sad bastard music” in the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. Anyone familiar with the Stuart Murdoch-led band’s catalog knows that, while sometimes melancholy, their music is actually more sweet than sour, locking in on a sound that owes as much to Burt Bacharach as it does to Morrissey. Evidence of this can be traced back to Belle and Sebastian’s two most successful albums, If You’re Feeling Sinister and The Boy with the Arab Strap, which arrived in 1996 and 1998, respectively.
Lauded or lampooned though, critics and fans always listen with rapt attention when the member of such a high profile outfit goes solo, and B & S guitarist Stevie Jackson is no exception. There’s a fine line to be walked here, for sure – stick too rigidly to the blueprint used at your day job, and you’re dismissed for an ostensible lack of creativity and vision. Stray too far from the path, and you’re pegged as a mediocre talent who wouldn’t be gainfully employed were it not for the bandmates that brought you to fame in the first place (Radiohead drummer Phil Selway experienced such a reception upon the release of his Familial LP in 2010).
In the case of Stevie Jackson debut album, grievances are being filed under the former category. (I Can’t Get No) Stevie Jackson exudes many of the same qualities as a Belle and Sebastian record, including fragile melodies, quirky lyrical digressions, and chaste atmospheres. Yet there’s very little here that shines a light onJackson’s songwriting prowess or fretboard chops – two qualities often kept out of the foreground on B & S albums.
Many tracks (“Kurosawa,” “Bird’s Eye View,” and “Telephone Song”) are imbued with jangly acoustic guitar textures, tambourine rhythms, and generally assuaging atmospheres. Others, such as “Man of God” and “Pure of Heart” recall the lighthearted adult contemporary balladry of mid-1970s Elton John. When Jackson sings “we were so youthful and bold” on the lethargic “Richie Now,” it’s hard to take him at his word.
Assertiveness may not be a cornerstone of Jackson’s aesthetic, but when he does attempt it, the results translate into the album’s highlights. “Just Just So to the Point” sports just a tinge of dancefloor bravado thanks to some elastic bass lines, bluesy string orchestrations, and simplistic yet propulsive drumming. “Try Me” – the album’s most palpable rocker, exudes an unhinged quality thanks to agitated electric guitar stabs and lyrics like, “Like a swan I can run into to you / like a swan I’ll fly away.”
Such decisions of fight or flight seem like foreign conundrums to a guy whose band makes music so blissfully naïve and innocent. Disappointingly, those bucolic childlike tones are just as pervasive in Stevie Jackson’s solo work as they are in his ensemble efforts. It’s not so much “old sad bastard music,” as Barry described it – more like charmingly puerile lullabies.