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While touring with Belle & Sebastian the past few years, Stuart Murdoch began coming up with songs he thought of as a separate project. Soon, they became sort of a story revolving around the travails of a girl growing up in Scotland who ends up being hospitalized due to what seems like a mental breakdown. Realizing that the songs probably needed to be sung by a female vocalist, Murdoch held a series of auditions. Eventually, he found a few singers he felt were suitable, and after hiring the guys from B&S as a backing band, they began putting the music on tape. The result was released under the name God Help the Girl, but it could have easily come out under the Belle & Sebastian brand and nobody would have been too surprised. The album sounds exactly like a B&S album, only mostly sung by female vocalists. Therein lies a big problem with the record. While the vocalists Murdoch found are all fine (especially Catherine Ireton, who sings most of the leads) you can't help but wish he had taken the vocals himself. Something about his words makes them sound much better when he sings them. Case in point, the neo-soul take on The Life Pursuit's "Funny Little Frog." In Murdoch's hands, the song is a touching, oddly poignant love song, here Brittany Stallings irons out all the kinks and turns it into a competent Winehouse-lite ballad. When Stuart does take the vocals himself, as on "Pretty Eve in the Tub" or "Hiding Neath My Umbrella," the record feels right. The rest of the time it sounds a little forced, and in a few cases when the singer is all wrong for the song (the Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon's overly campy delivery on "Perfection as a Hipster" or Asya from Smoosh's overly dramatic lead on "I Just Want Your Jeans"), the record falls flat.

The other big problem with God Help the Girl is the very fact that most of the songs sound exactly like Belle & Sebastian. Put "I'll Have to Dance with Cassie," "Musician, Please Take Heed," "Come Monday Night," and "A Down and Dusky Blonde" on a B&S record with Stuart's vocals and they would fit right in. That in itself isn't a real problem; the fact that too many of them feel like less than thrilling B&S songs is. The songs that work the best are those with above-average vocal performances ("Come Monday Night," the title track) and those that try something slightly unique, like "Hiding Neath My Umbrella," a lovely piano ballad sung by Murdoch and Ireton that sounds like something Burt Bacharach might have composed for a French film in the mid-'60s, or "If You Could Speak," whose simple acoustic guitar backing suits the jaunty tune and sweet harmonizing perfectly. Surely Murdoch was aiming for something more than Belle sung by belles, it's too bad he doesn't seem to have the musical range to achieve it. It might have helped to hire some outside musicians, but it might just be that he can only write one kind of song, and to expect more isn't fair or realistic. God Help the Girl should probably just be viewed as a flawed work or a semi-successful adventure by a solo artist who needs his band to be truly great. Or maybe he just should have sung all the songs himself and everything would have been fine. However you view it, unless you are a Belle & Sebastian fanatic, you could probably give God Help the Girl a pass. You won't be missing much.
For their second album, The Only Place, California duo Best Coast hired Jon Brion as producer. Right away it's clear that the fuzzily lo-fi noise pop sound of their debut, Crazy for You, was a thing of the past, and the band was looking to smooth things out quite noticeably. Hiring Brion to produce a noise pop record is like asking Rothko to paint your mailbox. What he and the band have done is replace the simplistic drone of the distorted guitars with a more layered, much janglier sound, added tons of space to the arrangements, and made sure each song gets the sonic approach it needs instead of the set-it-up-and-record-it style of Crazy. The result is an album that has a classic pop/rock sound that anyone who's heard an R.E.M. or Beach Boys or Springsteen record will instantly identify with and understand. It may disappoint anyone who wanted Crazy for You, Pt. 2, but the band didn't make this record for those people. On a sonic level alone, the record works very well. Bethany Cosentino reliably writes super-catchy melodies and sings them winningly, Bobb Bruno does a fine job filling in the songs with hooky guitar lines, and Brion adds the little touches that have made his name as a producer. The uptempo songs have a light bounce that will have people bopping along, the ballads have fully realized arrangements that sound dreamy as can be, and the whole record has a warmth that was missing from anything the band did before. The problem lies with Cosentino's awful lyrics. What seemed cute and only a little awkward in the past is now extremely clunky and slightly ridiculous. That her lyrics are shallow isn't such a big deal -- it didn't ruin Crazy -- but the real problem is that this time they are gratingly personal to the point of being like diary entries (as on "My Life" with the lines "My mom was right/I don't wanna die/I wanna live my life") or smug (on her title-track ode to California that includes the deathless rhyme "We've got the ocean, we've got the babes/We've got the sun, we've got the waves") or just plain boring and/or embarrassing (most everywhere else). Instead of making Crazy for You, Pt. 2, she's made Crazy for Me, Me, Me. When lyrics are so endlessly, inwardly directed as they are on The Only Place, there needs to be some spark of something interesting cooking in there, or the result will be an album that looks like a delicious cake but tastes like sawdust and chalk when you bite into it. Give the group credit for taking a step forward from Crazy for You: the album sounds great, full of catchy and well-crafted songs. Too bad it all falls apart so drastically when you factor in Cosentino's disastrous lyrics.
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