In a battle of elite titans, “A Bit of Previous” might take the crown for stupidest Belle and Sebastian album title in their catalogue. It also, though, luckily, proves that this distinction isn’t inversely proportional to the album’s quality, as all of these songs seep out of the speakers with purpose, originality and style.
Opener “Young and Stupid” reminded me a little of an old Cat Stevens song — gentle, reflective, generally mournful but also redolent of a keen sense of accomplishment or revelation. “If They’re Shooting at You,” then, emerges as somewhat of a centerpiece, coming across as more original and also striking for its delicate ability to blend funk and easy, care-free ambience. Indeed, Bobby Kildea’s bassline is cool to a superhuman extent, to where you want the song to last about two more minutes than it does, for its absorptive groove. Also on this track, the emergence of trumpet toward the end helps infuse the proceedings with a little eclecticism, and balance the otherwise bass-heavy mix.
“Talk to Me, Talk to Me” emerges as a solid choice for lead single, blending methodical, Teenage-Fanclub-influenced twee pop with Stuart Murdoch’s special vulnerability and emotionally maligned whine. On “Reclaim the Night,” then, Sarah Martin takes vocals and leads us on another fairly poignant little trek of melody, ebb and flow, with “Do it for Your Country” ironically titled in its lithe skin of balladry and contemplation. On this track, also, a guitar arsenal manifests with a pristine clarity giving the music a firm voice, even in its softness.
“Prophets on Hold” finds Murdoch operating within an excitingly dangerous realm of emotion: “It’s a rough rocky road / And it’s gonna get steep / I just wanted your soft tone / To allow me to sleep”. The song is built on a light, breezy rhythm guitar groove calling to mind Speaking in Tongues-era Talking Heads, and, you guessed it, a real funky bassline. And again, the band is expert in melding funk into something ironically rendered, in this case a sort of gushy, vulnerable Britpop expedition.
Around the mid-section, a couple of factors rear their ugly heads and deprive A Bit of Previous of classic album status. One is that the mix on “Unnecessary Drama,” not to mention the song awkwardly wielding a title that isn’t uttered in the chorus (this music doesn’t have the depth to successfully pull off an off-kilter title placement), is just obnoxiously clean, to where all of the feeling is pretty much siphoned out of this track. In this way, then, it plays as an obvious stab at a radio hit, one of the most cringeworthy pitfalls a band can possibly encounter (see Eve 6’s regrettable “B.F.G.F.”). “Unnecessary Drama” also just seems so rhythmically and affectively similar to the track immediately preceding, “Prophets on Hold,” so that the sequencing of A Bit of Previous seems to take on artistic glitches. A Bit of Previous ultimately amounts to a quality LP with some inspired tracks on it but one that still typifies a band afraid to really conjeal into a memorable juggernaut and leap into the spotlight.