Is it a Belle and Sebastian album? A Stuart Murdoch solo effort? A crowdsourced theatre geek pet project? Yes, yes, and yes. Stuart Murdoch's said before that he wasn't involved in any side projects because Belle and Sebastian took up all of his time, and he micromanaged everything from production to art direction (I'm paraphrasing here). Shame, really, because he seems like the kind of artist very well suited to have his hands in all sorts of things. Enter God Help the Girl. The concept: God Help the Girl is the soundtrack to a nonexistent musical (it's also the name of the band), with vocals by three lovely young ladies who are up until now unknown, as well as Murdoch himself, and music played by all the members of Belle and Sebastian. So how is it?
Let me preface this by saying that I have a rule that if a band or an artist releases three or more classic albums, then any meandering experimentation they do can be excused (I reserve the right to give these artists a hard time regardless *cough* Jay-Z *cough*). You can call it apologist, and you may be right, but it seems fair to me. Belle and Sebastian reached this point early in their career (Tigermilk, The Boy With the Arab Strap, If You're Feeling Sinister, plus oodles of stellar EPs collected on the double disc Push Barman To Open Old Wounds), and on God Help the Girl, Murdoch really flaunts his achievements by meandering, HARD.
The album is good, not great. It's in some ways a return to the twee bedroom confessions that made us fall in love with B&S in the first place. In another way, it plays like Murdoch wants to have his Phil Spector girl group moment. In other ways still, it contains the worst and hammiest of Broadway musical songwriting. This isn't necesarily a bad thing, and after the non-stop pop barage that we've gotten from the band recently, it's refreshing. "Act of the Apostle" and "Funny Little Frog," both from the band's last effort The Life Pursuit, sound better for the orchestrated arrangements and female leads. Title track "God Help the Girl" has a nice bounce to it and stands with the best of Belle and Sebastian's upbeat pop arrangements. These new female vocalists, apparently selected by internet contests and anonymous Glaswegian classified ads, really hold their own. But a number of tracks ("Hiding 'neath My Umbrella," "Pretty Eve In the Tub") get lost in Broadway musical tropes and ultimately fall flat.
Here's the thing: a lot of the time, a musical works really well on stage and doesn't translate to a recording; unfortunately we don't know if these songs work on stage or film (they may very well) but they're missing something on record. With the right production team this could make a phenomenal musical. As it stands, we've just got a sort-of alright Belle and Sebastian album. Which, all things being relative, is a pretty great thing to have.
God Help the Girl [eMusic]