On paper, Belle & Sebastian's 2003 masterpiece looked a risky venture. In the blue corner: a charmingly fey indie collective whose careworn previous albums creaked and clunked. In the red corner: Trevor Horn, a producer who had brought dazzlingly slick studio trickery to acts such as late-period Yes, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and the Russian pop duo t.A.T.u. What actually transpired was a match made in heaven, Horn leaving his gadgets back at the lab and enlisting over 40 orchestral players to fortify the B&S sound. “It was a great relief for someone like Trevor to take over”, said frontman Stuart Murdoch at the time. More than that, Dear Catastrophe Waitress saw his band move from black-and-white to glorious Technicolor.
Important as Horn's arranging skills and aptitude for the bigger picture were, the Glaswegian band met him halfway, the songwriting rivalry between Murdoch and the band's guitarist Stevie Jackson ensuring that they showed up with a fabulous sack of songs. Witness Murdoch's deliciously vibrant “I'm a Cuckoo” (he's on record as saying it was inspired by Thin Lizzy's “The Boys Are Back in Town”), or Jackson's “Roy Walker,” a playful pop-soul nugget that joins the notes between the Bay City Rollers, the Lovin'Spoonful and the Swingle Singers. Before the latter song closes with the sound of a ping-pong ball bouncing to stasis, fruity harmonica, vibes, claves and clacking coconut shells have all factored in the mix.
If there's an oddity on the record, it's “Stay Loose,” an incongruous if palatable slice of electro/'80s pop that conjures Men at Work, or perhaps the Cars circa “Just What I Needed.” Horn reportedly wanted it dropped from the final track listing, but it's a fascinating glimpse at a (slightly) more edgy B & S. All told, the group's sixth studio album was a quantum leap forward, the ace groove that propels the feather-light soul of “If She Wants Me” making nonsense of the "shambolic indie" label that some still insisted upon attaching to the band.