Undiscovered talent seems to be all the rage these days. What with the inescapable Susan Boyle to Glambert to…you know, the guy who actually won “American Idol” this year…what’s his face. Even Belle & Sebastian’s winsome frontman, Stuart Murdoch, got into the Star Search act with a curious entry on his blog in the fall of 2007. Looking to find the right voice for his new girl group-inspired songs, Murdoch’s call for female singers set afire to the Pitchfork-hipster-bookworm crowd with more than 400 entries yet it was ultimately Catherine Ireton, one half of acoustic pop duo Go Away Birds and cover girl of Belle & Sebastian’s “White Collar Boy” single. Still, Murdoch plucked Brittany Stallings (Olymipa, WA) and Dina Bankole (Jackson, MI) to contribute vocals on his new project, God Help the Girl.
So just what is God Help the Girl? It’s not a new Belle & Sebastian album, though it has aspects of one. It’s not quite a girl group album, though it is filled with lovely, harmonious female vocals. It’s a soundtrack to a movie musical that hasn’t been filmed yet and has the lush arrangements to back it up. What God Help the Girl is is yet another outlet for Stuart Murdoch. Many of the songs written for God Help the Girl were first written while Belle & Sebastian were on tour to support Dear Catastrophe Waitress. Not quite Belle & Sebastian songs, Murdoch envisioned female voices, which lead to said blog post. Following a girl named Eve (voice by Ireton), God Help the Girl is filled with vivid imagery even if the narrative always isn’t.
The most breathtaking part of God Help the Girl is Catherine Ireton. Her voice is robust, clear, and sometimes cheeky, and adds personality and vulnerability to Eve. Eve’s tale is that of a good girl trying to find herself and losing her way, with a little bit of sex, drugs and rock `n roll along the way. Opening with a delicate remake of Belle & Sebastian’s “Act of the Apostle II,” the song features a few tweaks (“senior ward” instead of “senior year,” renamed “Act of the Apostle”) borrows some swing from the Andrews Sisters and Ireton’s vocals adopts a big time musical feel. Feeling just a bit like a prologue, the tune sets an effective tone for Eve’s state of mind: “I’m bored out of my mind/ too sick to even care.” For something more reminiscent of “I’m a Cuckoo” or “She Wants Me,” look to the title track. Murdoch mines the Shangri-Las with this song with a swoon-worthy chorus of perfectly harmonized vocals by Ireton and Celia Garcia. The sweetly bouncy melodies belie the depression that Eve sings about (“I love my room/ I’m getting used to sleeping“) and Murdoch nails the quiet longing and irrational behavior without playing it too precious.
Murdoch’s own vocals appear on “Pretty Eve In the Tub” as James, a boy who tries to comfort and help our dear Eve, despite the lecherous lyrics of “Pretty Eve in the tub/ Please allow me to scrub/ Please allow me to rub.” The baroque arrangement is a good pairing with Murdoch’s light voice, particularly the gentle plucking of the strings. Better yet is Brittany Stalling’s superb take on “Funny Little Frog.” Stalling’s richly smooth vocals goes full blast, adding much needed soul elevating a good song to a great song.
Though there are nine different vocalists, Murdoch’s voice comes through the strongest. Certainly more robust musically (utilizing a full orchestra) than Belle & Sebastian, God Help the Girl is distinctively Murdoch with its subtle yet vivid lyrics and warm pop melodies. Whether or not these songs end up being a part of a film, the narrative of Eve is a strong one and Murdoch takes loving care of his protagonist. Eve is inconsistent, sometimes infuriating, fascinating and more importantly, real; Eve is a sister, a friend, even has shades of you. The real success of God Help the Girl is Murdoch’s deft hand with a story. The choice to use different vocalists was a good one as the story takes better shape and characters make their voices heard. God Help the Girl isn’t a Belle & Sebastian album, but it’s just as charming and likable as one.
Belle & Sebastian – Dear Catastrophe Waitress
Camera Obscura – Let’s Get Out of This Country
The Shangri-Las – Myrmidons of Melodrama
Video: “Come Monday Night”