Background art from animated short "Mouse in Manhattan", 1945
So Stuart Murdoch shelved Belle & Sebastian for this? I'm a little disappointed, particularly because it seems like the effort that was put into God Help the Girl could have produced two superior Belle & Sebastian records, without having to do a global search for singers, write extraneous fiction, or hire Rick Wentworth to conduct a massive orchestra.
I think the key problem with God Help the Girl is that Stuart Murdoch thinks he's the kind of songwriter who writes universal songs that can be sung effectively by any singer - it's now pretty clear that he's not. Of the nine vocalists on God Help the Girl, only one can pull off Stuart Murdoch's lyrics convincingly. Unsurprisingly, that vocalist is Stuart Murdoch. The other vocalists have varying success - Catherine Ireton, the project's main vocalist, doing pretty well most of the time, but some other vocalists are not as good. I don't think it was a good idea to give 17-year-old Asya (of the band Smoosh) a lead vocal here - she is way out of her depth. I don't mind the guest vocal by Neil Hannon (of the Divine Comedy), but I have a higher tolerance for his voice than many people. Overall, Murdoch's lyrics and melodies leave a listener distracted, thinking, "This song here would be better with the traditional Belle & Sebastian sound."
I'd gotten excited about initial reports that God Help the Girl would be heavily influenced by the '60s girl group sound and classic stage musicals, but, for the most part, I don't think the project delivers well on either of these inspirations. The singers can't help but sing in more of a modern pop idiom, and the arrangements are more Northern Soul than classic pop.
The album's opening number is "Act of the Apostle", a song that originally appeared on Belle & Sebastian's The Life Pursuit, and I always thought it didn't sound as good as it could on that record. Unfortunately, the God Help the Girl version is not an improvement, with Catherine Ireton trying way too hard to "interpret" the wry lyric, and the orchestra swelling absurdly over a low-key indie melody. The songs that stick better to the girl-group sound ("God Help the Girl", "Come Monday Night", "I'll Have to Dance with Cassie") are quite nice, but these pop treats are surrounded by overstuffed and tacky pieces like the creepy Murdoch-sung "Pretty Eve in the Tub" (why imitate the Kinks' worst twee impulses?) and poorly executed faux showtunes like "If You Could Speak". And the two instrumental interludes are surprisingly grating, considering how brief they are.
Even my favorite song on God Help the Girl, "I'll Have to Dance with Cassie", has an intro that is a little cringe-inducing. Once the band kicks in, though, it's a lot of fun and has a light pop arrangement that benefits from less intrusion from the orchestra. God Help the Girl was originally intended for Murdoch's compositions that would work better in a musical-theater context (including some that had already been released as Belle & Sebastian songs), but I can't help but hope that some of the better songs found here go back the other way. I'd love to hear "I'll Have to Dance with Cassie" or "A Down and Dusky Blonde" performed by Belle & Sebastian, where Murdoch is playing to his strengths.
"I'll Have to Dance With Cassie" by God Help the Girl