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Gentle Waves don't rock the boat

By Michelle Goldberg

ANYONE who witnessed the orgy of hype surrounding grunge in the early '90s or advertising's rapid embrace of electronic music in the last couple of years knows that terms like "alternative" and "underground" have become nearly meaningless. After all, what is a cutting-edge alternative to a society that bends over backward to épater itself?

Today, the homicidal rantings of Eminem are seen largely as the benign antics of the latest mediagenic enfant terrible. Last year's most controversial artistic event, the Brooklyn Museum's Sensation exhibit, was sponsored by Margaret Thatcher-boosting advertising magnate Charles Saatchi, a fact that no one seemed to find surprising. Shock, spectacle, raw sexuality, Grand Guignol decadence--its all the lifeblood of Western consumer culture.

It's this atmosphere that makes distinctly tuneful, ethereal, and intelligent musical acts like the Gentle Waves--the side project of Belle and Sebastian cellist and sometimes singer Isobel Campbell--seem so oddly removed from the mainstream. I say oddly because it's hard to imagine a record more accessible, lovely, and inviting than the Gentle Waves' new Swansong for You (Jeepster).

A follow-up to last year's Green Fields of Foreverland, Swansong offers a dreamy melange of kittenish female vocals, melodies derived from '50s girl groups and '60s folk, and chamber-pop arrangements that occasionally borrow from bossa nova and cocktail jazz.

It's pure confectionery indulgence, full of shimmery celestial strings and pastoral reveries. Swansong would be exquisite whatever the social climate, but the lobotomized brutality of recent pop culture makes it especially welcome.

The album's 10 songs form an empyreal haven, a place to revel in picturesque melancholy.

Unlike Looper, a band that spun off from Belle and Sebastian to explore whimsical indie electronica, the Gentle Waves hew close to the legendary Glasgow septet's sound, focusing on worldly but pining pop ballads backed by cascades of luminous strings.

On several songs, the Gentle Waves consist basically of Belle and Sebastian with a few polarities reversed. Most of the players are the same, but Campbell takes Stuart Murdoch's place as primary singer/songwriter. Murdoch plays bass on every song but one, and Belle guitarist Stevie Jackson appears on four, while Belle keyboardist Chris Geddes and drummer Richard Colburn contribute to five apiece.

In fact, no individual track from Swansong for You would be out of place on a Belle and Sebastian record. Yet Swansong as a whole is, if you can imagine, even softer and more delicate than any of that band's albums. Partly that's owing to Campbell's tiny angel voice, which is breathy and clarion and almost impossibly pretty. Belle and Sebastian have always used strings, but here strings are far more prominent, with heavenly harp playing on two tracks and lots of violin, cello, and flute.

THE MUSIC is all spun-sugar, but Campbell's wry morbidity cuts the sweetness and ensures that Swansong For You never grows cloying. Campbell seems to have picked up some of Murdoch's famously incisive irony since the last Gentle Waves outing, though she's always more plaintive than acerbic.

Even when the music is upbeat, as it is on "Sisterwoman," a song with shades of girl-group harmony and jazzy, percussive soul, the sentiments are bleak, recalling the Smiths' fey, fanciful gloom. Campbell's voice trills happily over shiny horns, "Every day, every day, every day is a step to the grave."

If anything, Swansong for You is comforting, since it quietly asserts the charms of introspection, isolation, and even sorrow, all of which are usually relentlessly stamped out by the shrill cacophony of mainstream music.

The songs pumped out through radio, MTV, and nightclub speakers may speak to those in the throes of hysterical passion or bacchanalian partying, but they're willfully oblivious to life's darker, lonelier places.

For anyone who's ever felt lost, exhausted, shattered, or sad, Campbell's music is a balm and a gift. In a world where garish vulgarity is the norm, music that glows with elegance and eloquence is the real alternative.

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From the December 28, 2000-January 3, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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