BELLE & SEBASTIAN with RASPUTINA at Massey Hall (178 Victoria), Saturday (November 8). $37.50. 416-870-8000 Rating: NNNNN
It's hard to say what's more shocking, that Belle & Sebastian have made a big, glossy pop album or that they're actually talking about it. Since their 1996 debut, the Glasgow ensemble's self-created mystery has been as important as their twee indie sound. Their profile wasn't so much low as subterranean, with founding members Stuart Murdoch and Stuart David playing coy and hard to get, concocting stories about the band's roots, refusing interviews and sending out shots of friends rather than the band members as press photos.
Belle & Sebastian's sudden chattiness, including a press junket in Shea Stadium held between innings of a Mets game, is a symbolic shift. Partially, it's down to the band's new deal with the Rough Trade label, which demands some interaction with the outside world. On the other hand, Belle & Sebastian actually have something worth talking about.
Their new Dear Catastrophe Waitress disc is a return to form after a couple of decidedly average discs. It's also the first time the band has dispensed with its limiting indie aesthetic and made a full-blown pop record.
Credit for that should go to producer Trevor Horn. The notoriously controlling producer, known best for his work with 80s pop fops Frankie Goes to Hollywood and ABC, might not have been the obvious choice.
"People always slag off Trevor for his work with ABC and more recently TATU," unfailingly polite Belle & Sebastian drummer Richard Colburn offers from Texas. "We actually like a lot of those records, though. I particularly like his work with Grace Jones. Those are pop records, and we're a pop band.
"We were thinking of hiring an outside producer and had tossed around names like Scott Litt and Ian Broudie, but none of those guys was either interested or available. Trevor rang us. I know he has this reputation as a control freak, and we were terrified about what we were getting into, but he was really good at putting us at ease and actually trying to bring things out of us that we hadn't been able to accomplish before.
"Not that we were hesitant, but this was a brand new opportunity with a genuine superstar producer. Why not make the biggest, best record you can?"
Beyond the sound, Dear Catastrophe Waitress is a kind of restart for Belle & Sebastian.
It's the group's first record after the departure of vocalist Isobel Campbell, who spent the last few years moping and finally walked out for her own solo career. It also came with the realization that even within the band, things were getting stale.
The novelty of the group's initial records had long since worn off, and you could predict what a new Belle & Sebastian album would sound like a month before you heard it. Dear Catastrophe Waitress isn't a radical shift, but it is enough of a change to make the band interesting again.
"At the most basic level, we wanted to progress and move forward, but it's hard when you have an established sound," Colburn agrees. "Often, the easiest way is to change everything around you.
"I think that's why Isobel left. She simply wasn't enjoying it, so fair play to her for that. It was miserable for us watching someone in our band be miserable, so it had to happen. I think we're both better off for it."
Dear Catastrophe Waitress is also the first album for the band after signing with Rough Trade. For a group of Smiths fanatics, it's an ideal situation.
"I'd be lying if I said that didn't come into our heads when we were discussing the deal," Colburn laughs. "Geoff Travis is brilliant. I'm still waiting for the opportunity to root through his Smiths vault, though.
"Maybe he'll have us over for Christmas dinner and I can take the chance then. 'Just popping down to the wine cellar, Geoff. '"