Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Two Glasgow Girls

Heading for the finish line -- so near and yet so far. Time to slip in a few more recent numbers, from two of my favorite indie bands with brains and storytelling heart. 

"String Bean Jean" / Belle & Sebastian

On their 2005 album Push Barman to Open New Wounds, this cool bunch of Scots -- led by the gifted and quirky Stuart Murdoch -- tell tales of the modern age, one misfit at a time. The lyrics are conversational, cryptic, and allusive, but there's always a musical hook to pull you in. Listen to that commanding guitar riff, all spaghetti western swagger. . . .

Our hero may or not be a musician -- "I got my fingers dirty at the school of rock," he tells us, but it's hardly as if he's a star. Aimlessly he takes a walk, he goes to the park, he's killing time -- "until the girls got home." Now I'm curious -- who are these girls?
Wasting no time, he zooms in on the one he's really interested in. She's a free spirit, a bit of a character -- when she's "on the rag [menstruating, in case you don't know the slang] / She spent the summer day inside her sleeping bag." But we do learn that she works at night, which makes me wonder -- is she like Monica, a "working girl"? Even if she isn't, a night job is usually something you take only because you're broke.

You can see why he's drawn to the girls' house -- it's "like a caravan" and "like your holidays." They're living communally, scrimping on the electric bill (in verse three he lends her money to pay the bill, because for once he's got a bit extra). It almost makes me feel nostalgic for the roommate era of my life. And in the bridge, he gets up early the next morning to catch his bus and go to work (my favorite line in the song: "I left the keys down in the caf" -- because of course the girls are chummy enough with the cafĂ© down the street to use it as their personal concierge service.) There's something about being young and living on the edge that makes you treat the world as an opportunity to improv. And that restless foot-jiggling tempo, the skittering melody, convey how ready they all are to go off on any tangent they please.

Last verse, a lovely little scene: "She asked me, 'Do I need to lose a bit of weight?' / And I told her, 'Don't be stupid, because you're looking great' / And I call her String Bean Jean because the label on her jeans / Says seven to eight years old / Well that's pretty small." Because of course kids' clothes are cheaper, so if you can wear 'em, why not? I see the petite girl, I see the jeans, I imagine their a-little-more-than friends relationship. And is it just me, or does the youthful tremor in his tenor suggest that he'd like even more?
"Mistress Mabel" / The Fratellis

From 2008 (because I know you're keeping the timeline, Nick), this is the first single released from Here We Stand, the sophomore album from yet another Scottish indie pop band -- though these guys are a little more inclined to rock out.

So here's another free spirit, though a little less Bohemian glamorous. "Mistress Mabel / Seriously wrong / Clears my table / Badly then she's gone" -- she's not just a bad waitress, she's a waitress with whom he has a history, and he's still not sure whether or not he's still hooked. (My take? If he's not sure, then he's still into her.) The seesawing notes, the whiplash tempo, all tell us he's conflicted.

In verse two, dig how he describes her reputation" "Mistress Mabel / All the kids agree / You're unstable / Curious and free." That felicitous "Mabel / unstable" rhyme pins her down. She still flirts with the customers, but it doesn't always get her where she wants to be: "Hemline rat bag so they told her / Last night's nametag across her shoulder" -- has she pushed this brassy waitress act too far?
Like Maggie May, she's the Older Woman ("And tell me where all the days have gone / When you robbed my cradle / Tell me Mabel"). But he's far enough down the road to see it as a "filthy fable."  (These guys do love their rhymes.)  In verse three, he offers "Mistress Mabel, won't you marry me?" But the very next line, he admits "I'm unable / To take it seriously." So where does songwriter-front man Jon Fratelli (like the Ramones, all the band members go by this made-up last name) stand vis-a-vis Mabel? 
I realize that it is entirely possible that this song was just written to take advantage of all the rhymes for Mabel. Yet there's something to its impatient energy and ziggurat melody, the pinball rhythms of those short lines, that makes me feel our hero's push-pull attraction. Written from his point of view, it's all about resisting commitment. But I can't help wondering what it looks like from Mabel's side of the table.  

44 DOWN, 8 TO GO

1 comment:

NickS said...

Okay, catching up, I've wanted to comment on some of these songs, but have fallen behind . . .

I appreciate you writing up these songs, both of them are ones for which I could easily miss their charms. I think if I was just casually listening neither would make a strong impression, but you're right to highlight their virtues.

In particular I like your description of how "String Bean Jean" captures a certain distinctive mood of youth -- of endless free time, and casual aimlessness which is only slightly anxious.

His singing style reminds me slightly of Nick Drake -- the breathiness and something in the vowel sounds.

The only Belle and Sebastian that I have is Dear Catastrophe Waitress and this feels like a much earlier style. Looking it up, it appears that was recorded in 1998 and then compiled and re-released on Push Barman to Open New Wounds which makes sense.

My one objection to the song is where I started, that as a performance it doesn't do much to pull the audience in. If I didn't have somebody telling me to pay attention I would just glide over the surface. But that may say more about me than the song. I can understand, based on that, why Belle and Sebastian partisans would have such love for the band.

[Side note, about Dear Catastrophe Waitress: my favorite song by far is "Piazza, New York Catcher" which, in this context, I mentally note as a song with the name of a man in the title.]