Isobel Campbell is the sensitive posh bird on the cover, wearing a cream twinset, looking like a romantic French schoolgirl holding a big fluffy black cat. Argghh! Blond girls and kitties, conservatory trained musicians and a member of Belle and Sebastian. If there were ever a vote for High Princess of Twee, surely Miss Campbell would glide to victory like a swan on a cloud of candy floss and violins.
Harpsichords and glockenspiels, press rolls and great big bells back her fragile vocals and spoken words. The staccato spoken story told in "Partner in Crime" refers to "a life that was so familiar: Lonely, sad with an almost religious quality," and in this regard Isobel Campbell can be an ascetic martyr to the cause of the terminally sensitive. It's all a bit wet, really. And then the album begins to open, and the world goes all Serge Gainsborough/Nancy Sinatra. "You make me satisfied/You only want to ride" (ride being slang for sex, and rather vulgar, really, coming from a twee posh bird). And here's where it gets even more complicated; not only is Isobel Campbell the cello/"fun instrument" player in Belle and Sebastian, she is also one-half of an on-again, off-again romantic partnership with Stuart Murdoch, Mr. B&S himself. Music Rule Number One: Don't sleep with anyone you make noise with. Music Rule Number Two: If you fail to follow Rule Number One, do not be surprised if people feel like they are peering into your bedroom. Third-person narrative becomes an impossibility -- every tear stain, every pair of panties on the floor becomes yours.
And in light of all this, most of us should pray for breakups to feel so sad and pretty. Sometimes, the breathy, girly quality can have an almost Jane Birken-like effect, perversely becoming erotic for its guileless lack of intention, or maybe it's lack of guilt. A sense of gentler times, a more innocent place pervades its very Gallic, late-'60s feel -- even though there was nothing gentle or innocent about that time at all. That's the seductive beauty of nostalgia -- capturing a sweet feeling without ever copping to the flaws that let it die. Maybe the same could even be said for love. Perhaps Isobel Campbell is truly one of the last great romantics, someone who genuinely believes in the redemptive power of love. Her belief has to be pretty absolute to sing some of these lines vibrato-free and with a straight face, with all the sadness of loss but none of the brutality, none of the grind.
In the process of avoiding the grubby taint of rock 'n' roll predictability and the tough-girl stance, she may well have become the coolest chick in Scotland, although one doubts that she'd notice or care. The Gentle Waves are content to play on the shores of a land safe for the irony-free use of harps and kitties. But irony has become an incredibly overused and overrated excuse, another way of keeping the world and your hope at arm's length. The world would be a better place without it.