Belle and Sebastian have always walked a fine line between alternativepop-rock and twee kitschness. Their skill was having just enough grit to keep them out of the MOR bracket, either with an edgy turn of phrase – “And now he’s throwing discus, For Liverpool and Widnes” from “Stars of Track and Field” is surely one of the greatest lyrics of all time – or a musical jolt, like the twin guitar line on “I’m a Cuckoo”. For “How to Solve Our Human Problems, Pt 1”, they’ve tripped over that fine line and plunged headlong into Saturday night, family entertainment TV land.
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Between now and February 2018, the band will release three EPs and this is the first. If you’re only releasing five tracks at a time, they all should be great, right? Wrong. It sounds a little as if the band were either recovering from, or entering into, a period of writer’s block. The worst culprit here is the opening track – “Sweet Dew Lee” is the sort of disco-lite that clogged up the charts during the mid-seventies. You can almost smell the velour jump suits and the thickly applied hairspray. It’s the kind of thing that an immaculately coiffed and polyester clad dance troupe would mug their way through on some ghastly variety show on prime time, 1975 TV. This is next level tweeness and it’s really long, too. The EP gets better…but not much.
There are five tracks on “How to Solve Our Human Problems, Pt 1” and only a couple of them are better than mundane or have the bite that is sadly lacking in the rest of the record. “Fickle Season” combines a third album Velvet Underground chord progression and a lilting, early Postcard Records vocal delivery. Throw in a charming flute solo and you’ve got yourself four minutes of loveliness. “The Girl Doesn’t Get It” starts off a little like the theme music from a kid’s TV show from the early eighties and ends up sounding like the New Pornographers. The bassline keeps threatening to morph into “My Sharona” but it tumbles along in a “classic Belle and Sebastian” sort of way. And that’s where the fun stops.
I’m not sure what the thinking is behind “How to Solve Our Human Problems, Pt 1”. All of these tunes would have made acceptable bonus tracks on a 12” single, or tucked away on some outtakes compilation, but in the cold, hard light of an EP release, where there is really no excuse for lack-lustre material, some of these songs just don’t cut the mustard. Let’s hope that “How to Solve Our Human Problems, Pt 2” restores Belle and Sebastian’s usually impeccable quality control. I wonder if they’ve still got Trevor Horn’s phone number…?