As much as the seven shambling popsters of Glasgow’s Belle and Sebastian do not want to be everyday heroes — playing microscopic venues, praying at Felt’s bizarre Tom Verlaine hero-worshiping altar, withholding personnel information on releases, shunning publicity photos and to this day favoring the EP format over album — they have turned out some of the finest, most self- effacing pop music of their generation. Led and blueprinted by guitarist, singer and primary songsmith Stuart Murdoch, Belle and Sebastian has been aligned with every post-Smiths pop movement (twee, Shibyua-Kei and chamber pop) except the correct one: musique porcelaine. In Belle and Sebastian’s introverted, fey, shaggy dog aesthetic, these intricate, lovely songs say, “Handle with care: we are all broken.”
Formed in the mid-’90s by art students Murdoch and bassist Stuart David, the band — also including Steve Jackson (guitar), Chris Geddes (keyboards), Richard Colburn (drums; later in Snow Patrol) and Isobell Campbell (vocals and cello, also a solo artist and founder of the interestingly bland Gentle Waves) — spent five days cheaply recording “Tigermilk”, an almost perfect collection of fragile/dumb/ordinary/elegant gems pressed in an edition of a thousand. These whimsical fragments of fun seem anachronistic: part scaled-down lugubrious Nick Drake, part pre-breakdown Syd Barrett, part elf-seeking Donovan. The charming music is generally acoustic and intricate, with strings and brass stopping by for a cup of tea: think the intelligence of the High Llamas and early Canterbury sounds of Caravan mixed with the Pastels’ breathy playing and singing. Al Stewart, Teenage Fanclub and the Orange Juice — Glaswegians all — have influenced Belle and Sebastian, which was named for a French children’s novel and long-running TV series by Cécile Aubrey.
Tigermilk is spirited, skiffly and well-crafted, with expert brass accompaniment on “Expectations,” a rousing neo-folk rocker that surmounts the album’s otherwise amateurish sound. The harmonies are like old friends at a holiday party; for the most part, the playing is integrated, exuberant. The songs reminisce about school days, best buddies and girls in swinging short skirts. “Electronic Renaissance” is hurried and blurred, singing filtered though Gary Numan’s alternative universe, a blend of late James with Thompson Twins. The track has moxie, tension and density — attributes lacking in some of the band’s later work. “Monochrome in the 1990s / You go disco and I’ll go funkadelic, man / Is the way to go / So drop a pill and then say hello…” The Jonathan Richman-like “I Could Be Dreaming,” an ambivalent ode to youthful hope and lost innocence, introduces themes oft- visited by the band in the next few years. After the album was recorded, violinist Sarah Martin joined the fold.
Moody and confident, If you’re feeling sinister is a bold leap forward: the sound is balanced, clear, full and dreamy, bolstering the recurring motifs of lovesickness, death, solitude, an England no longer mattering and sweet girls “into S&M and bible studies.” Piano leads here; there are rarely any things like pronounced instrumental electrification or showoffy solos: this is an ego-less ensemble. In this finely tuned album, the crescendos soar, the muted tones are darkly evocative and the whispered sad melodies are subtle and agonized. The singing has a restrained crying edge, often running out of gas near the end in accord with the softening of the melodic line. On the best songs (“The Stars of Track and Field,” “Seeing Other People” and “The Boy Done Wrong Again”), Murdoch’s voice is the best thing. The band’s art is gentle and candid, a rapturous adaptation of a Memphis Jug Band. Welcome to Scottish Blues, without cotton or a back-breaking sun.
One of the decade’s finest pop efforts, The Boy With the Arab Strap inexplicably takes its name from a cock ring. The band moves from one 1960s influence to another: intricate LA chamber pop, edgy echoes of social resentment by way of the Kinks; the Velvets’ softer moments. Guitarist Stevie Jackson sings his own composition, the wonderful “Seymour Stein,” less about the record executive than a final rejection by mature lovers; that and Isobel Campbell’s waif-like “Ease Your Feet in the Sea” are outstanding. The key songs, however, arise from Murdoch’s considerable talents: his singing and songwriting are at their peak here. The tunes are bold, rich in ornamentation; the lyrics effusive and poignant. The choppy and garagey “Dirty Dream Number Two” feeds off string and brass as well as the vehement drumming. Murdoch’s writing offers small pockets of kindness to social distaffs and to lovers in search of subjects; the portraits are as fully realized as any current composer.
The disappointing fold your hands child, you walk like a peasant begins the band’s slide into sonic monotony and lyrical malaise. What was once precious and particular is here merely pretentious. Co-produced by Tony Doogan and created amid Campbell’s departure, the arrival of hornman Mick Cook (later in the Amphetameanies, a Glasgow ska band) and a change of bassists (Bobby Kildea replacing co-founder Stuart David, off to his own Looper), the album never really shuts up. Murdoch’s diminished songwriting role adds to the band’s woes; the absence of his faltering whimsy, the brazenly apathetic rendering of his minute intersection of the world, his agitated charm is notably in short supply. So even if Sarah Martin contributes the fine “Waiting for the Moon to Rise” and Jackson’s fondnesses for power pop and late 1960s soul are colorful additives, the album never congeals. Horns drop in and out; the strings seem to be acts of reverence rather than organic necessities.
Most of the score B&S did for Todd Solondz’s Storytelling never found its way to the film; their efforts were replaced by Shudder to Think’s Nathan Larson. Still, it appeared on CD, complete with bits of dialogue. The band sounds lost amid the wayward instrumentation and bogged down by Murdoch’s evident boredom and muted guitars. Lines like “Now you’re a storyteller you might think you’re without responsibility / But in directions, actions and words / Cause and effect / You need consistency” would be untenable at the lamest spoken word gathering. Although the music is a series of fragments, at once tender and profoundly pointless, the disc upholds a proud Belle and Sebastian tradition for packaging: funny liner notes, easy- to-read lyrics, ethereal photography and superb art direction.
Murdoch’s fascination with dark glamour, silences prompted by relational bliss and ruinous youthful exuberance are given a particularly vibrant sheen in Dear Catastrophe Waitress, a strong album that over- relies on chamber pop instrumentation. (The ’60s pop fixation remains with glimmers of Love, Zombies and Terry Callier.) Trevor Horn’s production is either flawless or deadly; the album sounds edited beyond perfection, with all traces of human intervention smoothed away. There are a few notable exceptions: “Step Into My Office, Baby” is a sure- footed triumph — cocky, nervy and anti-Thatcher — while quasi-tributes to Irish game show host/comedian Roy Walker and the unclear sexual preferences of New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza ring sharp, funny and true. This disappointing album is infectious and literate, but erratic compositional fortitude and lack of daring is a drag, as each clever step is followed by another clever step.
As for the pleasant quagmire that is Belle and Sebastian’s EP world … completists should venture forth boldly, the merely curious should concentrate on the recent stuff and the more serious devotee should buy the box set that contains the idiosyncratic and haphazardly inventive Dog on Wheels, Lazy Line Painter Jane and 3…6…9 Seconds of Light. Belle and Sebastian’s music is always worth hearing; few bands leverage such meager musical technique and narrow worldview into such compelling confessional poetry.