Belle and Sebastian

Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant

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When Belle & Sebastian canceled several dates on their 1998 North American tour after cellist Isobel Campbell fell ill, many fans cried foul; couldn't the rest of the group have gone on without her? Of course not -- Belle & Sebastian is a band in the most democratic sense of the word, a point reinforced by Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, their fourth and most ambitiously eclectic album to date. Nominal frontman Stuart Murdoch recedes into the background even more than on The Boy With the Arab Strap, allowing bandmates like Campbell and Stevie Jackson to take on a greater share of the writing and vocal duties. Also like its predecessor, Fold Your Hands Child opts for a subtle, intimate palette that reveals its charms only in its own sweet time. It may be too subtle for its own good; even after repeated listens it fails to connect on any meaningful level. The record has many intriguing ideas (like the delicate "Beyond the Sunrise," which evokes the classic duets of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, and the vaguely rootsy "The Wrong Girl"), but few of the concepts seem fully developed. For better or worse, Fold Your Hands Child's best moments are those which hew most closely to the classic Belle & Sebastian sound -- that is, Stuart Murdoch songs. Though there's little advancement in his contributions, they capture the band's past glories. The radiant "Woman's Realm" is a dead ringer for The Boy With the Arab Strap's title cut, while "The Model" retreads so much lyrical and musical ground it could be a self-parody. Still, the album provokes an intriguing question: Belle & Sebastian may be a band, not Stuart Murdoch's solo project, but is that a good thing?

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