Artist: Belle & Sebastian Album: Dear Catastrophe Waitress Year: 2003 Grade: B+
In Brief: An indie pop classic that I’m still in the process of slowly falling in love with, a good six years since I first heard it (and three times that long since it was released). This was the moment where Belle & Sebastian made the jump to full-color production values and got a little braver with the stylistic experimentation, with a few of these tracks even being a little funky and danceable, while still maintaining the quirky attention to detail that their songwriting has always been notable for. I’d never heard anything from the band until the record after this one, but Waitress really should have been my jumping-on point.
In Brief: By know you should know that Chvrches isn’t the kind of band you expect to radically reinvent itself on each new album. The trio knows what works for them, which is high-octane synthpop with generally dark and brooding lyrics, and they’re consistent about it almost to a fault on album #4. It’s hard to complain when they piece together beats, vocal hooks, and synth melodies with lightning precision almost every time, and when they know how to go for the lyrical gut-punch in terms of confronting what scares them. For now I’m going with a rating on this one that says “Pretty darn good, but your first three albums set an almost impossibly high bar for you to clear, so keep trying!”
There are certain bands whose recorded material I’m absolutely over the moon for, and yet who I feel hesitant about seeing live. Chvrches was one of those bands, right up until a friend decided to get tickets to their Love Is Dead tour when it rolled through Los Angeles. They are absolute wizards of synthpop in the studio, and all three members of the band are capable of playing multiple instruments. Yet when a band plays a style of music that is sufficiently programmed, I often wonder if it’s worth showing up just to watch them press buttons on laptops. As it turns out, that’s not at all a fair characterization of Chvrches’ live shows, where really all that comes pre-recorded is the background effects and loops – the synths, bass, whatever guitar parts their songs might occasionally feature, and most obviously the vocals, are all performed live. For their latest tour, they’ve also added a live drummer. This type of music can get me really excited when delivered with a sufficient amount of live energy, and I should have known better than to doubt Chvrches in this regard. Their three studio albums thus far have been about as close to uniformly excellent as the discography of any band in my collection, so of course their setlist was going to be packed with wall-to-wall favorites, almost no matter what they chose to play. This might have been a little more expensive of a show, with a slightly bigger crowd, than I’m used to when I go to concerts these days, but at no point in the evening did I doubt that this would be 100% worth it.
Artist: Chvrches Album: Love Is Dead Year: 2018 Grade: A-
In Brief: For a band that had such a fully realized synthpop sound from the get-go, it makes sense that change should come only in small increments. Chvrches once again keeps what works for them intact, and while there are a few small surprises in the song structures and instrumentation, the bigger surprise on Love Is Dead is how hard a lot of the lyrics hit. Without being preachy or overtly political, the trio clearly feels a responsibility to address the turbulent times we’re all living in. It’s refreshing and vital, and ultimately that’s what makes this record yet another home run for Chvrches.
Artist: Belle & Sebastian Album: How to Solve Our Human Problems Year: 2017/2018 Grade: B+
In Brief: Spreading this collection of songs over three separately released EPs made it a little easier to digest this wealth of new material, but it also gives the impression that there was no real master plan for most of it to fit together cohesively. It’s always great to see Belle & Sebastian expanding their musical horizons, and there honestly isn’t a weak track in the bunch. But the collection lacks a central sense of identity, which makes me wonder whether the band is done with traditional “album releases” and would rather just put out music in a more “stream-of-consciousness” fashion in the future.
Artist: Chvrches Album: Every Open Eye Year: 2015 Grade: A-
In Brief: It’s a shade lighter and more optimistic than The Bones of What You Believe, and its deep cuts aren’t quite as exploratory as the ones on that album, but it’s still a powerhouse synthpop album that wears its 80s influences loud and proud. Chvrches may need to shake up the formula next time around, but for now I’m glad they’re sticking to their guns.
Artist: Belle & Sebastian Album: Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance Year: 2015 Grade: B+
In Brief: While the band’s bold leap into dance-pop territory is going to ruffle the feathers of longtime fans, that sound accounts for maybe a third of a record that’s stuffed with equal parts up-tempo surprises and warm, laid-back familiarity. It may feel like more of a mixtape than a cohesive album, but the diversity of Girls is one of its biggest strengths, making most of its hour-plus a sheer delight to get lost in.
Artist: Chvrches Album: The Bones of What You Believe Year: 2013 Grade: A In Brief: With a haunting undercurrent beneath their deceptively chirpy exterior, the debut from this Scottish synthpop trio makes a solid case for the validity of laptop-driven music.