Career In Brief: Belle and Sebastian

INTRODUCTION

I remember this cartoon on Nickelodeon in the mid-80’s, a show about a boy and his big white dog and their adventures in the Pyrenees. I still remember the catchy theme song too. Fast forward ten years and we find the cartoon was biographical, and that the young man went and grew up and changed his name to Stuart Murdoch and started writing songs about all the people him and the dog had met along the way. Turns out that most of the folks read a lot of the Bible and existentialist fiction and had strange sexual fetishes. Pretty engrossing lyrical fare. Go figure.

Don’t ask about Belle though. Sad story…

ALBUMS PROPER:

Tigermilk (1996) – [B+]: As a listening experience, decent, not great. As a mission statement, spot on. ["My Wandering Days Are Over"] (my review)

If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996) – [A+]: Transcendent pop vignettes. A world unto itself. ["Stars of Track and Field"] (my review)

The Boy With The Arab Strap (1998) – [A-]: Imagine 12 variations on The Beatles’ "I’m Only Sleeping" and that’s pretty much what you have here. ["The Boy With the Arab Strap"] (my review)

Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant (2000) – [C+]: More of the same from the B&S Express. Murdoch getting too democratic. ["Don’t Leave the Light On Baby"] (my review)

Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003) – [A+]: Band re-boots sound, injects with the heart of the sun, produces power-pop masterpiece. ["I’m A Cuckoo"] (my review)

The Life Pursuit (2006) – [A-]: After embracing 70’s power pop, the band mines the decade again, this time embracing funk and glam. ["Funny Little Frog"] (my review)

Belle and Sebastian Write About Love (2010) – [A-]: If there’s a record that amalgamates all of the band’s periods into one cohesive collection, then here it is. For the most part, spot on.  ["I Didn’t See It Coming"] (my review)

OTHER NOTABLE RELEASES:

Storytelling (2002) – [C+]: A film soundtrack that was, for the most, rejected by the filmmaker. About what you’d expect. Lots of incidental music, a few proper B&S tunes, and snippets of clever dialogue from the film. "Scooby Driver" is short, but a hint at where they were headed on their next LP. Overall, this one’s a skipper except for die hard fans (of which there are surely many). Besides, these sorts of collaborations rarely work out well, right?  ("Black and White Unite", "Wandering Alone")

Step Into My Office, Baby Single (2003) [2/2]: These 2 cuts are more akin to the band’s 90’s output. Pleasantly popful. ["Desperation Made Me A Fool"]

I’m A Cuckoo EP (2004) – [3/3]: Between this and the other 2 Waitress singles, Belle and Sebastian were apparently piling up greatness. Gotta love the Avalanches’ remix of "I’m A Cuckoo", and the other 2 cuts are great.

Books EP (2004) – [3/3]: Worth the price of admission for "Your Cover’s Blown" by itself. It’s quite simply one of the band’s most brilliant moments, an unending source of fun. "Your Secrets" is also a great non-album cut. Even the afterthoughts of the Waitress period were excellent.

Push Barman To Open Old Wounds (2005) – [A]: This compilation may have come after the band put on some muscle with Catastrophe Waitress, but it collects a whole bunch of EP’s released in the band’s "skinny" years. This ranks up there with Sinister as one of the band’s essential releases. It features crown jewels like "Dog On Wheels", "Lazy Line Painter Jane", "This Is Just A Modern Rock Song", and "I Know Where The Summer Goes." It’s not an album proper, but this ain’t no attic dust-off either. (my review)

The BBC Sessions (2008) – [A-]: Over half of the tracks are simply BBC sessions of already released tracks, but the real treat here are the four otherwise unreleased originals that constitute the band’s session with John Peel from 2001. That set is particularly revelatory when viewed as bridging the gap between Peasant and Waitress.  [tracks 11-14]

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Quick Review (LP): Push Barman to Open Old Wounds by Belle & Sebastian

Belle & Sebastian
Push Barman to Open Old Wounds
Jeepster; 2005

My Rating: A (88/100)

Best Tracks: "Dog On Wheels", "Belle & Sebastian", "Lazy Line Painter Jane", "This Is Just A Modern Rock Song", "I Know Where The Summer Goes"

"When I was a boy I was confounded by you/Now I’m still a boy I am indebted to you…"

NOTES

  • Love "Dog On Wheels." It has the quality of a lost Sinister track.
  • Jeez, these guys recorded "The State I Am In" a lot. BBC session, debut LP, and now this!
  • "String Bean Jean" seems like Belle & Sebastian’s ode to their archetypal fan.
  • I do love it when bands write songs after their own band name. And this band’s eponymous song is pretty great.
  • Apparently that’s Monica Queen on "Lazy Line Painter Jane." Love her voice. She sounds like a British Maria McKee. It’s a brilliant tune, one of their best.
  • I’m not usually a fan of spoken word, but between the lovely background music and the barely audible Scottish brogue of the narrator, "A Century of Elvis" is pretty enjoyable.
  • And I’ve never noticed until now that "A Century of Fakers" and "A Century of Elvis" are the same music.
  • "This Is Just A Modern Rock Song" & "I Know Where The Summer Goes" are both gloriously gorgeous. Slow, considered, and beautiful, it’s B&S at their most epic.
  • Even the more understated tunes have a brilliant magic to them. "The Gate" is one of Isobel’s best performances.
  • Apparently, the "Legal Man" single was one of their biggest hits UK side, but I don’t get it. Those 3 tracks are probably the worst here. Too sleek or something.
  • Love those strings on "Take Your Carriage Clock and Shove It." That’s some old school B&S.
  • "The Loneliness of a Middle-Distance Runner" is also a winner.
  • Here’s the deal: the early EPs are great. The later stuff runs the gamut from good to forgettable. Even so, this is an essential collection. Although If You’re Feeling Sinister is their best album (a true classic), this might be the best starting point. You’ll be hard pressed to find a collection of more unbearably lovely tunes.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (5/5)
Consistency (4.5/5)
Songs (4.5/5)

Quick Review (LP): Belle & Sebastian Write About Love by Belle & Sebastian

Belle & Sebastian
Belle & Sebastian Write About Love
Jeepster; 2010

MY RATING: A- (81/100)

BEST TRACKS: "Didn’t See It Coming", "Come On Sister", "I Want The World To Stop"

The best of both worlds.

NOTES

  • "Didn’t See It Coming" is one of the band’s purest and loveliest moments in years. Putting Sarah on the lead vocal was a good move.
  • Sweet synth effects on "Come On Sister." Catchy tune.
  • "Calculating Bimbo" is a bit of a snoozer, but for some reason I find myself humming that titular phrase in my head. It’s pleasant I suppose.
  • With "I Want the World To Stop", I’m starting to realize that the genius of this record might be that it’s the most complete synthesis of the two Belle and Sebastians yet. That is, it successfully merges the understated loveliness of their first four albums with the more muscular northern soul of their later records. In short, this is the pretty girl that can kick your butt and make you laugh about it.
  • "Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John" recalls Dylan’s "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts", in title at least. Norah Jones is a nice touch, but the track is boring.
  • "Write About Love." Love the chorus. Carey Mulligan is the female voice. Famous actress, I guess. Why have her sing?
  • The production sounds great. Their most hi-fi record?
  • They’ve experimented with northern soul before, but this might be their most northern soul record.
  • All in all, Write About Love is stronger than I reckoned the first time around. It’s not their finest hour, but this is a band that’s created quite a legacy for themselves, so it’s not really a matter of topping their past work at this point, but more about keeping things interesting enough to bring the fans back. To that end, they succeed here.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Consistency (4.5/5)
Concept (4.5/5)
Songs (4.5/5)

Quick Review (LP): The Life Pursuit by Belle & Sebastian

Belle & Sebastian
The Life Pursuit
Jeepster; 2006

My Rating: A- (81/100)

Best Tracks: "Act of the Apostle", "Another Sunny Day", "Dress Up In You", "Funny Little Frog", "To Be Myself Completely"

A sunny day in Glasgow?

NOTES

  • They’re still doing the power-pop thing. In fact, they sound like old pros at it by this point.
  • "Acts of the Apostles" is one of their top 10 tunes. The chorus is incredible, lyrically and melodically: "Oh if I could make sense of it all/I wish that I could sing/I’d stay in a melody/I would float along in my everlasting song/What would I do to believe?"
  • "Another Sunny Day" comes off like a no-brainer, but again, it’s one of their best tunes without a doubt.
  • "White Collar Boy", "The Blues Are Still Blue", and "Song for the Sunshine" all have a very strong 70’s vibe. A little funky, a little glammy, know what I’m saying?
  • "Dress Up In You" is gorgeous. A personal favorite.
  • "Sukie In The Graveyard" comes off a bit like a tribute to The Smiths’ "Cemetry Gates." Pretty catchy, but nothing really special.
  • "We Are The Sleepyheads" – I’ve never been sure about this one. Intriguing, but a bit too sun-shiney or something?
  • "Funny Little Frog" – one of the best tracks of the last decade.
  • "To Be Myself Completely" is a sleeper hit here. It’s Stevie Jackson penned and sung, and it ranks up there with some of the band’s finer tunes.
  • Gotta slam "Act of the Apostle II." It’s a strange sort of theatrical reprise thing, and it completely disrupts the flow of an otherwise strong record.
  • The last 2 tracks are okay, but for the most part forgettable. "For the Price of a Cup of Tea" is the better of the two, but any merits are obscured by the complete confusion "Act of the Apostle II."
  • The last track is really the only one here in the vein of nineties B&S. Even then, it’s sub-par.
  • Overall, this is a strong album that could have been 2 tracks shorter and great. Concept? Well, if Dear Catastrophe Waitress is the band’s refusal to grow up in the face of reality, then The Life Pursuit is the band accepting adulthood and looking forward into the sunshine. I certainly prefer it to the band’s mopier work. No looking back now, eh?

ATTRIBUTES
Concept (5/5)
Cohesion (4.5/5)
Consistency (4/5)
Consequence (4.5/5)
Songs (4.5/5)

Quick Review (LP): Dear Catastrophe Waitress by Belle & Sebastian

Belle and Sebastian
Dear Catastrophe Waitress
Jeepster; 2003

My Rating: A+ (100/100)

Best Tracks: "Step Into My Office, Baby", "If She Wants Me", "Piazza, New York Catcher", "I’m A Cuckoo", "You Don’t Send Me", "Stay Loose"

If this doesn’t put a smile on your face, then you don’t have a soul.

NOTES

  • This album breathed new life into the idea of Belle and Sebastian. It’s a creative breakthrough on the level of Kid A, The Unforgettable Fire, or Sgt. Pepper’s.
  • "Step Into My Office, Baby" is perhaps the most hilariously overdone string of sexual innuendos I’ve ever heard. It’s like one long "that’s what she said" joke, only with Stuart Murdoch’s trademark lyrical wit behind it.
  • I love the R&B flourishes of "If She Wants Me." "If I could do just one imperfect thing I’d be happy…"
  • "Piazza, New York Catcher" seems ready-made for mixes.
  • What does "Asleep On A Sunbeam" remind me of? Or is it just a really gorgeous tune?
  • "I’m A Cuckoo" is so amazing. Who would have thought that Belle and Sebastian could pull of the Thin Lizzy sound? Makes me wanna hear a "Jailbreak" cover.
  • Good grief, "You Don’t Send Me" is so catchy it makes me want to vomit (in a good way).
  • "Lord Anthony" sounds like a well-produced track from the B&S of the last century.
  • Again, "If You Find Yourself Caught In Love" is ridiculously catchy.
  • I don’t know if anyone can weave religious symbolism into pop music the way Stuart Murdoch does. It’s the reverence that makes it amazing.
  • I love the title track. Again, it’s just so funny and catchy at the same time.
  • They did a wise thing in embracing lite soul and power pop. The sound of this record just works.
  • Pitchfork: “If, however, "Legal Man" is among your favorite Belle & Sebastian songs, buy this immediately.” I’m not a fan of that tune.
  • Essentially, this is Belle and Sebastian 2.0. A different band, but the same one for all intents and purposes. With all of its employing of studio trickery, there could be much made of the subtext here, that of a bunch of kids refusing to grow up even when faced with the realities of the adult world. It’s laced with not-so-subtle innuendo, parodies, inside jokes, ironies, etc, but it’s all B&S all the time.
  • I think I’m surprised at this point to find that this is a classic (and perfect) album. Wow!

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (5/5)
Consistency (5/5)
Songs (5/5)

Quick Review (LP): Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant by Belle & Sebastian

Belle & Sebastian
Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant
Jeepster; 2000

My Rating: C+ (58/100)

Best Tracks: "I Fought In A War", "The Wrong Girl", "Waiting for the Moon to Rise", "Don’t Leave the Light On Baby"

The band’s last (and least interesting) hyper-folk record.

NOTES

  • From Stuart Murdoch’s very first utterance here, I get an overwhelming sense that I’ve heard this before.
  • "I Fought In A War" is pretty nice minor key opener. Verbose and a bit lovely.
  • Hey, a harpsichord. Why doesn’t it sound that new? ("The Model")
  • Come to think of it, from the opening piano tones, "The Model" seems built on the same framework as "Seeing Other People."
  • "Beyond the Sunrise" sounds like B&S fronted by Lou Reed.
  • Though I wouldn’t call anything on this record a radical shift, there are definite northern soul tones to "Don’t Leave the Light On Baby." One of the better tracks here.
  • Good grief, "The Chalet Lines" is a heavy, heavy tune. So much for the free-spirited B&S…
  • Well, the second half is a major drag. With the exception of the tracks mentioned above, most of the stuff here comes off like outtakes. A song like "Too Much Love" sounds like something the band would have produced early on in their career, not four albums (and numerous EPs) into it.
  • Overall, I think this record proves that the band’s Drake-ian days were numbered. Does any band ever have 4 albums worth of the same thing in them? Thankfully, they managed to find a way ahead by adding a little power to their pop the next time around.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (4/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Consistency (4.5/5)
Concept (4/5)
Songs (3.5/5)

Quick Review (LP): The Boy With The Arab Strap by Belle & Sebastian

Belle & Sebastian
The Boy With The Arab Strap
Jeepster; 1998

My Rating: A- (81/100)

Best Tracks: "It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career", "Sleep The Clock Around", "Ease Your Feet Into The Sea", "Chickfactor", "The Boy With The Arab Strap"

Excruciatingly pleasant rainy day book-core.

NOTES

  • It’s If You’re Feeling Sinister‘s demure kid sister.
  • "Is It Wicked Not To Care?" is a pretty great moment. Gotta love the xylophone + guitar bridge.
  • I think of this record as 12 variations on The Beatles’ "I’m Only Sleeping."
  • This is one of the most "democratic" records since Music From Big Pink (Deja Vu?/Rumours?).
  • Drags a bit in the middle. "Seymour Stein", "A Spaceboy Dream", and "Dirty Dream Number Two" all have their place, but they aren’t particularly strong back-to-back.
  • And then it launches into "The Boy With The Arab Strap", which may be the defining B&S song (at least the 90’s B&S). Excellent.
  • Is that a recorder solo?
  • "Chickfactor" is a nice change of pace.
  • "The Simple Things" adds some vigor to the mix.
  • "Rollercoaster Ride" is really pleasant, a last little stroll through dreamworld before you have to wake up again to reality.
  • Overall, this one is a would-be classic, but it’s a bit under-grand. Good melodies abound, but it’s a bit sleep-inducing and, at times, formulaic. That being said, I’d rank this as perhaps their second or third best offering, and one of the best albums I can think of for an overcast and lazy Saturday morning.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Consistency (4.5/5)
Concept (4.5/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Songs (4.5/5)

Quick Review (LP): If You’re Feeling Sinister by Belle & Sebastian

Belle & Sebastian
If You’re Feeling Sinister
Jeepster; 1996

My Rating: A+ (100/100)

Best Tracks: “The Stars of Track and Field”, “Seeing Other People”, “Me and the Major”, “If You’re Feeling Sinister”, “Mayfly”

Pathetic and delicate. Breathtaking, gorgeous, and grand.

NOTES:
– What was I listening to when I first heard this record in 1996? Oh, some Fugazi, some Snapcase, a lot of local hardcore bands with hoarse vocals and dropped-D “chugga chugga” guitars. As a general rule, it had to be distorted, ugly, muscular, and angry. Enter If You’re Feeling Sinister.
– The thing is, the songs here are INCREDIBLE. I mean, every time I hear “The Stars of Track and Field”, I envision these guys filling a stadium with the sounds of trumpets and twinkling pianos.
– That opening piano line on “Seeing Other People” is one of the greatest things ever. It’s got that Charlie Brown sense to it, and that’s about the right starting point for Belle and Sebastian.
I remember watching the cartoon when I was a kid. I’d love to see it again.
– The other thing: this is a great ROCK record. In contrast to their other early albums, this one sounds REALLY powerful. I mean, listen to “Me and the Major” on full blast. It sounds like it would have been at home on The Bends.
– “We’re the younger generation/We grew up fast/All the others did drugs/They’re taking it out on us!”
– The instrumentation is brilliant throughout, right up to the trumpet and recorder fest that ends the album on “Judy and the Dream of Horses.”
– Apparently Murdoch thinks this is his best collection of songs, but doesn’t think they are recorded very well. Perhaps, but I think that lends the record a certain edginess that their other early LPs didn’t have. This sounds pretty punk.
I agree with AMG that logically reducing this album to the perfect blend of The Smiths and Simon & Garfunkel doesn’t really do the album justice, but it’s probably the most accurate short description of this record that I can think of. Oh yeah, and this: “beautifully out of time.”
– Or maybe it’s this: If You’re Feeling Sinister re-defined indie rock.

ATTRIBUTES:
Cohesion (5/5)
Consistency (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (5/5)
Songs (5/5)

My review of Tigermilk

Quick Review (LP): Write About Love by Belle and Sebastian

Write About LoveBelle and Sebastian
Write About Love
Matador Records; 2010

My Rating: B

Best Tracks: “I Didn’t See It Coming”, “Write About Love”, “The Ghost of Rocklove”

One thing Stuart Murdoch has always had a penchant for is figuring out which song should open the record. Masterful move here letting Sarah take the lead vocals, but the thing that hits me hardest from the outset is the power of the bass and drums. Belle and Sebastian quit the twee schtick a long time ago, and it continues to prove the right move, as they seem to be learning the ropes of soulful power pop even better with each record. As strong as the record opens though, Murdoch and company still haven’t figured out how to make the second half of a record as interesting as the first. By the time you get to “Sunday’s Pretty Icons”, attention has faded away, and the song just doesn’t pack the punch to close things out on a grand scale. But most of the record is strong enough to revisit it every once in a while.

Pitchfork review
Paste review
Metacritic reviews

Tracks of the Decade: “Funny Little Frog” by Belle and Sebastian

“Funny Little Frog”
by Belle and Sebastian
from THE LIFE PURSUIT (2007)

belleandsebastian_brm_052109“Funny Little Frog”
by Belle and Sebastian
from THE LIFE PURSUIT (2006)

When Belle and Sebastian briefly figured front and center in the 2000 film HIGH FIDELITY, they were instantly harangued by record store clerk Barry (played by Jack Black) as “sad bastard music.” I don’t know if Stuart Murdoch took those fictional words to heart or not, but what I do know is that the band’s subsequent post-millenial output has taken a northern trajectory in mood and tempo. The culmination of that trajectory is “Funny Little Frog,” arguably the greatest power pop song of the decade, one so good that Stuart Murdoch decided he needed to record it with two different bands (see GOD HELP THE GIRL). Simultaneously muscular and hilarious, Murdoch proclaims such lyrical inanities as “You’re the funny little frog in my throw-ette!” with the same conviction that Chilton had when he belted “When my baby’s beside me, I don’t a-worry!” Nope, nothing too complicated here. This is feel good music, just a few marks short on the smile-o-meter from Barry’s counterpoint, Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine.” It’s a celebration of finding acceptance in someone else, a song to lift your spirits coming from a decade the seemed to crush them time and again.