Friday, 8 February 2013

Ball & Sebastian

A little background with this Friday's video.  Depending on how far their viral videos have spread, Hey Ocean are either a little known indie band you may end up thanking for showing to you, or cresting a wave of mainstream breakout that will make me seem tragically late to the party, like always.

I'm willing to take the risk, though, because this album is lovely.  In a lot of ways it reminds me of Belle & Sebastian, and not just because they have a guitarist who's capable of an absolutely flawless Stevie Jackson impression ("Jolene").  "Bicycle" could easily have shown up on Dear Catastrophe Waitress or The Life Pursuit, but mainly the similarity comes from the fact that, like Stuart Murdoch before her, lead singer Ashleigh Ball seems to have drawn a chalk circle around herself and announced "Beyond this point, good songs CANNOT go."

The best that can be said of any song not sung by Ball here is that it doesn't completely destroy the wave of euphoria Ball creates.  I'm not sure she's quite at early Murdoch levels of skill, or at least not consistently, but "You Make Me Wanna Dance" and "Big Blue Wave" are impossibly wonderful - especially when the listener is as curmudgeonly and suspicious of happy abandon as this one is.  It's made all the better by the fact that unlike Murdoch, who I don't think would be too upset by the idea that his singing talents don't stretch much beyond avoiding screwing up the awesome stuff he writes, Ball's got a hell of a voice (check out the throat-shredding force of "Change").

And if all that isn't enough, there's also a loose Feeling Strangely Fine style thread to Ball's songs, albeit one that charts a rather less linear relationship than did Semisonic's best album.  We start off with a simple declaration of intent in "If I Were A Ship", the fist glorious realisation that a new relationship is about to take off in "Make A New Dance Up", and the growing sense of a genuine long-term connection in "Big Blue Wave".  Tragically, things take a turn for the worse as "New Love" takes a lover to task for emotional distance, "Bicycle" tells us of a man's decision to flee the confines of commitment, and "Change" presents an ultimatum to a self-absorbed self-destructive fool who's in real danger of losing the one ally he still has.  It's not so much a story from first love to final break up as it is from first love to a succession of fights, break-ups and patchy repair jobs, until the final encounter of "Last Mistake" sees the narrator have one last one night stand with her former lover, before leaving forever whilst he still sleeps. The disc that began with the line "If I were a ship, I'd sail to your shore" ends with "I left before he was awake", which is a hell of a gut-punch from a band whose sporadic video releases suggest unassailable optimism and joie de vivre.

So, eight wonderful songs with a loose theme running through them, bulked up with four songs you can always skip if you want to (though "Give" has its moments, I suppose, mainly at the end when Ball shows up to improve the proceedings like she always does), and an instrumental that doesn't really do any harm. Highly recommended.  Also, if at all possible, try and get the special edition. "Liar" is pretty throwaway, and "Be My Baby" a pretty but entirely throwaway cover, but "Maps" is a delight, exactly the kind of song cynical TV executives stick on the end of an episode to give the closing scenes a poignancy they couldn't earn on their own.

Oh, and I promised you a video.  Here you go.

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