Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: Belle And Sebastian.
Belle And Sebastian 101
“Belle And Sebastian were the product of botched capitalism. It would be nice to say they were the children of socialism, but it would be a fib.” So begins a typically wry paragraph in the liner-note “biography” that accompanies If You’re Feeling Sinister, a spot-on album that did as much to build the legend of Belle And Sebastian as any of the playfully arch myth-making the band members undertook in lieu of traditional promotional efforts around its 1996 release in the band’s native Scotland. (’97 in the United States, brought across the pond by EMI subsidiary The Enclave, which was in the process of collapsing by the time the band made its own Stateside trip.) But such crass shilling would seem out of place next to the 10 songs of the band’s second LP, its first recorded as a proper band. Retiringly composed and literately clever, If You’re Feeling Sinister sprung primarily from the pen of band leader Stuart Murdoch, who’d spun the group out of a university course a few years before the record’s release. Yet even this early in his recording career, Murdoch exhibited a preternatural gift with bittersweet melody and the even rarer talent for jumping into the minds of his song’s characters: outcasts, dreamers, and inveterate wasters of potential suited to an author who spent years bedridden by an ailment commonly known as chronic fatigue syndrome.
Never growing any louder than the playground yelps sampled at the start of its title track, If You’re Feeling Sinister nevertheless touched off plenty of noise among record collectors, message-board dwellers, and the British music press—a curiosity pushed along by Murdoch and company’s refusal to give interviews to the British press, leaving the NME and Melody Maker to splash around in the final, turbid waves of Britpop. It’s just as well, as the world of If You’re Feeling Sinister feels light-years removed from Cool Britannia, its arrangements at turns baroque and unsophisticated, Murdoch’s half-whispered lilt lacking any trace of swagger. In essence, the band was forcing its small-but-passionate following—appropriate for a record where the word “cult” jumps out at the listener from the opening lyric—to give a close listen to songs that still feel impeccably crafted and impossibly intimate 17 years on. Band members eventually started speaking more freely about their music to the press, but there remains a thrill to, say, sussing out the relationship between the titular characters of “Me And The Major” or contemplating the lonely majesty of the protagonists in “The Fox In The Snow.”
There are Belle And Sebastian fans who argue that Murdoch would never best the likes of If You’re Feeling Sinister standouts like “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” or “Judy And The Dream Of Horses.” And while that argument may have some merit, it ignores the rest of Belle And Sebastian’s stunning mid-’90s creative tear, a period where albums like If You’re Feeling Sinister and its predecessor, Tigermilk, were supplemented by a series of EPs that were just as crucial to the band’s development and mystique—and the development of its mystique. Later repackaged as a three-disc box set (and then sequenced as the first disc of the indispensable compilation Push Barman To Open Old Wounds, the non-album releases Dog On Wheels, Lazy Line Painter Jane, and 3.. 6.. 9 Seconds Of Light are of a piece with their long-playing contemporaries. But they also map conventions established by those records onto new directions Belle And Sebastian would pursue in later years, directions laid out by the triumphant girl-group chug of “Lazy Line Painter Jane” or the spy-guitar summer-reading list of “Le Pastie De La Bourgeoisie.” Similarly of note are the increased contributions from the likes of vocalist-cellist Isobel Campbell and bassist Stuart David, moves that would eventually have their own, stratifying effects on Belle And Sebastian.
While Tigermilk was Belle And Sebastian’s first album, it was definitely not the first one that most people heard. Recorded for a music-business school project at Stow College in Glasgow, the album was initially (and barely) released in a limited edition of just a thousand copies. Those records didn’t make it too far out of Scotland, but copies were carefully placed into the hands of influential DJs, who played it enough that it attracted the attention of record labels, thus launching Belle And Sebastian as a going concern.
For a solid couple of years after If You’re Feeling Sinister, it was incredibly hard to come by a copy of Tigermilk. Fans traded coveted cassettes—there were no torrents, MP3s, or ZIP files to be had in those days—and marveled at both the scarcity and the songs. What they learned: Tigermilk was every bit as good as Sinister, and in spots it’s even better. The band actually agreed, at least to a degree: Paul Whitelaw’s detailed bio Belle And Sebastian: Just A Modern Rock Story claims that the band members much preferred the first album to the legendary second.
The truth is that they’re massively similar, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering they were both released in 1996. Both find Murdoch at an untouchable place with his songwriting: Wistful, gorgeous songs like “The State I Am In” and “Expectations” nakedly explored coming of age in the U.K. in the ’90s, and they’re as timeless as anything written early on by one of Murdoch’s idols, Morrissey. (It’s no surprise that Belle And Sebastian found a readymade fan base among Smiths disciples.)
As the proper follow-up to If You’re Feeling Sinister, The Boy With The Arab Strap faced an uphill battle. Murdoch increased that challenge by encouraging his band members to contribute their own songs to the mix, which provides moments both complementary (Campbell’s lead on the lovely “Is It Wicked Not To Care?”) and jarring (Stevie Jackson’s lead on the shoulda-been-a-B-side “Seymour Stein”). Still, there are enough absolutely fantastic songs on The Boy With The Arab Strap—which was named in honor of the fellow Scottish band, who weren’t too happy about it—that it’s worth exploring after exhausting the earlier discs. “Ease Your Feet In The Sea,” “Sleep The Clock Around,” and “Dirty Dream Number Two” are Belle And Sebastian classics.
The early ’00s were a turbulent period for the band: A fickle flirtation with the film world, the departures of Campbell and David, the hit-and-miss singles collected on Push Barman To Open Old Wounds’ second disc. The Belle And Sebastian that emerged in 2003 to release Dear Catastrophe Waitress startled longtime fans, playing polished pop songs that hearken back to Thin Lizzy (the horn-flecked single “I’m A Cuckoo”) in addition to Moz and the liner-note-praised jangle-pop outfit Felt. In the case of album-closer “Stay Loose,” some the tracks were actually (gulp) danceable.
Peel back the slick production by Trevor “The Man Who Invented The Eighties” Horn, however, and this is still the same band. Dear Catastrophe Waitress is as interested in chronicling the emotional lows of life in the British school system (“Lord Anthony”) as it is mapping out bohemian travelogues while pondering the religious practices and/or sexual orientation of Major League Baseball all-stars (“Piazza, New York Catcher”). And as much as “Stay Loose” was a shock to the system, the nightlife epic “Your Cover’s Blown”—part of a run of EPs and singles compiled in 2013 as The Third Eye Centre—made for an even starker display of the band’s shifting priorities. (Not that its club-ready flourishes should’ve surprised anyone with memories of Tigermilk’s “Electronic Renaissance.”)
More recent years have found Belle And Sebastian flirting with the Northern Soul sound that Murdoch had long professed love for. On two albums produced by Tony Hoffer—2006’s The Life Pursuit and 2010’s Write About Love—the band pushed the sunshiny sounds to the fore, and it was a smart move. In many ways, these records sound like they were made by a different band—one that got some vitamin D, or maybe some Prozac—but they should be experienced on their own lush merits. The sweet, wistful bedroom-pop is gone, but this can be pretty attractive just the same.
Belle And Sebastian sprang almost fully formed from the mind of Stuart Murdoch, but as time went on the evils of democracy invaded. The band’s fourth album might sport the band’s greatest title, but Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant is a jumble of half-formed ideas put forth by various band members. It’s noble that Murdoch wanted to let his bandmates take the lead, but after a truly promising one-two punch to start the album—“I Fought In A War” and “The Model”—in comes guitarist Stevie Jackson on “Beyond The Sunrise” and brings the whole thing to a grinding halt with an oddly low, supremely distracting voice. Sarah Martin and Isobel Campbell take turns at the mic as well, and by the time Murdoch grabs it back for a pair of solid songs (the depressing “Chalet Lines” and bubbly “Nice Day For A Sulk”) it’s basically too late. Fold Your Hands would’ve made a fine EP, but as it stands, it begs for the fast-forward button or a carefully culled playlist.
Much of the same could be said of Storytelling, the band’s attempt at soundtracking the Todd Solondz film of the same name—only six minutes of which ended up in the final cut. It’s easy to categorize the album as another misfire, marked as it is by incomplete concepts and punctuated every few tracks by out-of-context dialogue from the film’s ensemble. But what producer and honorary Belle Tony Doogan managed to stitch together from those sessions is more anomaly than outright failure, the product of a frustrating back-and-forth between a director recovering from a divisive sophomore effort (1998’s Happiness) and a band in a difficult period of transition. Some of the instrumental passages are truly lovely (though it’s telling that one is titled “Fuck This Shit,”) and there’s a fascination in hearing Murdoch write for someone else’s characters. “Big John Shaft” sounds every bit the closing-credit number it was written to be—at the very least, its guitar parts laid the groundwork for the Dear Catastrophe Waitress highlight “If She Wants Me.”
When contributions to the whole weren’t enough, some members of Belle And Sebastian took to solo careers. Isobel Campbell started releasing records as The Gentle Waves in 1999, with The Green Fields Of Foreverland, and she left the band in 2002. She went on to record with Screaming Trees/Queens Of The Stone Age dude Mark Lanegan, but nothing she’s done has matched her days with B&S. (Though she’s surely glad to be away from a band fronted by her ex-boyfriend.)
Lots of record labels wanted to be in the Belle And Sebastian business in the late ’90s, which led to the release of Looper’s debut album, Up A Tree, on Sub Pop. Led by Belle’s other Stuart, Stuart David, the group took similarly twee sentiments but added electronic elements—bits of scratching here, some keyboard there. But it was David’s spoken-word bits, which had also found their way into some Belle songs, that attracted fans of his main band. David ended up leaving Belle And Sebastian after Fold Your Hands, and Looper is apparently still a going concern, though it hasn’t been in the public eye much in recent years.
Murdoch too pursued a personal vision between the release of The Life Pursuit and Write About Love, venturing into screenwriting in order to find a home for a batch of songs that didn’t suit his main gig. Or rather, they didn’t suit the voice of his main gig: The music of God Help The Girl is Belle And Sebastian by any other name, Murdoch and his bandmates playing backing musicians in a Northern Soul opera set among the young, hip, and mentally anguished in swinging Glasgow. Led by the dusky voice of one-time B&S record-sleeve star Catherine Ireton, God Help The Girl (the album) marked the continued refinement of the band’s sound; God Help The Girl (the movie) was directed by Murdoch in 2012 and is currently set for a 2013 release.
The first Belle And Sebastian album sounds like an incredible songwriter just finding himself artistically—Stuart Murdoch’s shyness and vulnerability combine with his clever confidence for a beautiful set of songs from an undeniably singular voice. It’s clear he surprises himself, which is rare and beautiful.
2. If You’re Feeling Sinister
Effortlessly tuneful, lyrically affecting, and occasionally quite funny, Belle And Sebastian’s second full-length release is the kind of record other bands struggle for entire careers to make. That’s made all the more impressive by the fact that it was recorded by a group of musicians who were still learning to be a legitimate band—a learning curve that led to some creative dead ends, none of which are heard here.
3. Dear Catastrophe Waitress
This record isn’t technically a return to form because it doesn’t sound like any form of Belle And Sebastian that previously existed: It begins with an openly strutting shuffle and ends on a post-punk-inspired tangle of honest-to-goodness guitar heroics. Yet for all its eclecticism, the band’s comeback from its post-Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant malaise is defined by the voice of Stuart Murdoch—a little older, a little more refined, and a whole lot better at determining the proper time to pass the wheel to one of his bandmates.
4. Push Barman To Open Old Wounds
During its late-’90s heyday, in those heady days when the band was still mysterious, Belle And Sebastian released a string of EPs whose songs are as strong (and sometimes stronger) than the ones on Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister. This 2005 comp collects the tracks from those releases, plus a couple from after the turn of the century that weren’t quite as great. But disc one of Push Barman is every bit as good as the band’s first two albums. “Dog On Wheels,” “String Bean Jean,” and “A Century Of Fakers” are canonical.