A cash reward may exist for the person finding the piece which doesn't use the words “fey” or “twee” in conjunction with the band.
The back catalogue of Belle & Sebastian part 1
There seems to be a bizarre tendency amongst music critics to dismiss Belle & Sebastian – a cash reward may exist for the person finding the piece which doesn't use the words "fey" or "twee" in conjunction with the band – but Glasgow's finest have quietly gone about the business of making themselves the biggest cult band in Britain. In the decade that has passed since their seminal debut Tigermilk, they have stood on the brink of the major league and failed to really take advantage, but are now enjoying a renaissance of sorts since their brilliant seventh studio album The Life Pursuit, and are finally getting wider recognition as what they are and have always been – a truly great pop band. Certainly they deal with melancholia to a great extent (and it shouldn't be forgotten that they once were once touted as The New Smiths), but Stuart Murdoch and company have a unique knack for fashioning upbeat tunes out of bad situations, not to mention a deliberate desire to make music as melodic as possible. They sprung up in 1995 as an antidote to Britpop's mindless posing with a vision of making songs where trumpets and cellos were as integral a part of the music as the guitars and drums, and now, having added a tinge of soul and funk to the sunny proceedings, have hit a new peak creatively with a more muscular and direct sound. A perfect time then to remind those still uncertain of Belle & Sebastian's unlikely charms just what makes them one of the most joyful bands playing today.
(Electric Honey Recordings, 1996. Reissued Jeepster Recordings, 1999)
There can be few more unusual ways to start a career than the method used by Belle & Sebastian – formed after a recruiting session by Stuart Murdoch and Stuart David (who met on a government photography course) in an all-night cafe to record an album for the Stow College in Glasgow on a strictly limited run, the omens hardly existed for a long and prosperous existence – but the result,Tigermilk, was sheer brilliance. A (chiefly) acoustic driven blend of indie-pop and folk, it was a straight-forward mission statement for the band, a signalling point for all that was to follow, and a classic record to boot. From the quiet, lamenting strains of opener The State I Am In, each song blossomed into a polychromatic masterpiece of harmonies, twinkling guitars and heart-breaking strings. There was certainly no bombast or excess though – despite having six members (a line-up which would soon expand to eight, although future member Mick Cooke was already playing trumpet on this record), each track is pared down to expose its heart and soul, and it's an endearing set of recordings.
Nor was Tigermilk a one trick pony – though the majority of the tracks may revolve around guitars and melodies, the end of the first side - even in the CD age, the band's penchant for the vinyl approach was shown by their placing a significant pause at the half-way point of their albums, thus clearly dividing their sets into "sides" - comes with Electronic Renaissance, a beat-driven electronica track with a full compliment of synths and electro-styled computer noises – a clear indication that Belle & Sebastian were (and continue to be) a band with the ideas to back up the melodies. Elsewhere the fare was more straightforward, but the album never lacks in pace and the songs never start to meld together – I Could Be Dreaming is a wonderfully jaunty pop song based around fuzzy, distorted guitars, We Rule The School is a slow-burning piano-led ballad. As for She's Losing It, I'll be ever so bold and describe it as a stunning song worthy of the moniker "indie genius". From the first pressing of just 1,000 copies, Tigermilk is now a much-loved cult classic, lacking the muscle perhaps to punch into the big time but maintaining a sense of beauty and wonderment even while documenting the rather less bright side of life – topics for songs include depression, loneliness and the feeling of being stuck in a rut, although Stuart Murdoch is a more than sufficiently clever lyricist to know to keep the songs vague enough to be applicable to pretty much anyone in any situation. As debuts go, Tigermilk is one that got pretty much everything right. Beginners luck, though? No chance. This record has aged well chiefly because it's far from unreasonable to describe the songs as timeless – the band never made an effort to be in synch with trends in music and have always stood outside the confines of what music is expected to sound like and this is to Belle & Sebastian's advantage.
If You're Feeling Sinister (Jeepster Recordings, 1996)
Following hot on the heels of their debut effort, the follow-up was an album made by a band who had hit their stride. Perhaps as a result of the band playing together for a little longer, If You're Feeling Sinister is a superbly well-oiled machine, a tour de force demonstrating poised and balanced song-writing and emotional strength. There's no significant advance in terms of style from Tigermilk but there was a notable difference in the delivery of the songs here – where its predecessor was light and airy, Sinister has a darker, more intense overtone, without losing the melodious heart of the band's music. In addition, Murdoch's lyrics had developed – Me And The Major's lyrics perfectly encapsulated the gap between two generations in a tale of the relationship between Murdoch and "the major", an old army veteran ("He doesn't understand and he doesn't try/He knows there's something missing and he knows it's you and I/We're the younger generation, we grew up fast/All the others took drugs, they're taking it out on us"). Coupled with the song's fizzing guitars, insistent rhythm and hypnotic harmonicas, it makes for one of Belle & Sebastian's very finest moments.
The rest of the album is of an equal standard, and there is rather more variety in the songs here – while Tigermilk was based mostly in an acoustic framework, here the songs make use of all the instruments at the band's disposal, creating a more balanced sound. Essentially, Belle & Sebastian were on a creative roll and this record is a reflection of that, an even better album than their previous attempt. Vitally, Sinister possesses an extraordinary emotional empathy which makes it a very warm record, giving the impression of being an album that is personal to anyone who listens to it – songs like Fox in the Snow and The Boy Done Wrong Again have the perfect equanimity between pace, resonant music and lyrical excellence. Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying is another fine example of Belle & Sebastian's skill at creating upbeat yet remarkably human songs, being an upbeat rock song driven by gently flicking guitars and gliding strings, backed up by another piece of lyrical brilliance about introspection and romantic longing. Recording the "difficult second album" for Belle & Sebastian sounds like it was a piece of cake, a record which came easily to them and one which speaks straight from (and to) the heart. It's a greatly affecting piece of work, and in many ways their finest hour.
The Boy with the Arab Strap (Jeepster Recordings, 1998)
Continuing the creative momentum after two classic albums would never be easy, and it is fair to say that the group's third album, The Boy with the Arab Strap, lacks a certain element of verve when compared to its forebears. Which is not to say that Arab Strap is a poor or even really disappointing record, rather than it was an album written by a band that seemed to have settled in a groove a little bit and were content to write songs within their comfort zone rather than attempt to push the music forward? Ultimately this record would provide Belle & Sebastian with their first taste of real success, reaching no. 12 in the album charts and eventually providing the band with the unlikeliest of Brit Awards when they won the 1999 award for Best New British Act (idiotically enough); but musically it may only be really remembered for the ebullient title track, a gloriously upbeat and compulsively entertaining piece of pop that acted as a reminder, late on in the record, of just what Belle & Sebastian could offer, just as the record started to lose its momentum on a slightly muddled second side. The title song would also eventually become familiar to many as the theme music to Channel 4's hit comedy Teachers.
But if the second side, with its minor misfires A Space Boy Dream and the monotonous Chickfactor had to be rescued by the aforementioned title track (as well as, to be fair, the beautiful downbeat closer The Rollercoaster Ride and the brilliant and shimmering Dirty Dream Number Two), the first side of this record is a set of tunes written by a band who still had a huge amount of talent available to them – Sleep The Clock Around is perhaps the highlight, a hypnotic jangle led by an almost disco-beat drum figure which ended in a cascade of pipes, keys and vocal harmonies. Elsewhere, A Summer Wasting with its pace checks and thrashed acoustics and the gentle Is It Wicked Not To Care? were particularly fine songs (the latter was the first song of the band's to feature Isobel Campbell on lead vocals – with Stuart David and Stevie Jackson also taking on vocal duties elsewhere on Arab Strap.) This record marked the start of a more democratic approach to each member's recorded output, which arguably would be to blame for the inconsistency which would hamper the otherwise fine records which could have seen Belle & Sebastian make the mainstream.
Arab Strap ultimately was a record which represented continuation rather than progression for the band. A fine record slightly hamstrung by a couple of lacklustre songs, this album will go down as the start of a rather contradictory period in the band's career – while success began to look more and more likely, the albums themselves became less consistent, a trend that would remain for the rest of their time on Jeepster Recordings. All of which is not to say that the records produced over the next few years are not worthwhile – they certainly are – but that they would have a less perfectly-balanced sound and would be slowed down by a handful of poor tracks (it's noticeable that most of their lesser moments would be those not written chiefly by Stuart Murdoch, although there are certainly exceptions). It may have taken a little while for Belle & Sebastian to find the full level of genius attained on their previous two records, but at this point in time the band had to settle for merely being very good, not great.
for part two of this opus, click here...