Belle & Sebastian have left the '60s. On Dear Catastrophe Waitress -- which should've been called Following Catastrophic Failure, i.e., last year's awful soundtrack to Storytelling -- the Scottish group mostly abandons '60s orchestral folk for... '70s orchestral pop. So instead of hearing hints of the Beatles, Leonard Cohen, and Phil Spector, you get allusions to Steely Dan, the Free Design, and the Partridge Family.
This is not trading up.
Catastrophe certainly sounds good. In fact, it may be the band's most ably recorded release yet, thanks to its first outside producer, Trevor Horn. Having steered hits for such indie groups as Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Yes, and Barry Manilow, Horn knows how to make an instrument sing: Witness the symphonic gospel of "If You Find Yourself Caught in Love" or the blue-eyed soul of "You Don't Send Me." But while the complex tunes here sound crystalline, they also feel overloaded and self-indulgent. (Witness ex-Belle Isobel Campbell's new CD, Amorino, which is orchestral and succinct.)
You can also probably lay the blame for several dusty guitar and synthesizer tones at Horn's feet. No one's played the doodle-doodle riff from Catastrophe's "I'm a Cuckoo" since "Reelin' in the Years," and for good reason. And while it's neat to imagine Stuart Murdoch fronting the Attractions, the wheezing organ and vocal effects of "Stay Loose" recall bad karaoke. The only tune that adds to Murdoch's pantheon of lonesome losers is "Lord Anthony," and that one is rumored to predate Tigermilk. Elsewhere, his characters -- a put-upon waitress, a sexually harassed worker, Mets catcher Mike Piazza -- feel more like hazy snapshots than flesh-and-blood people. Catastrophe is not a total bummer. On "If She Wants Me," Murdoch returns to his old one-two punch, singing melancholic lyrics in a breezy fashion. Maybe that's the secret to this album's failure: The band sounds too happy, too content. This Catastrophe is more of a shrug.