The result of an academic exercise for a music business class, Tigermilk was originally only released on vinyl in limited quantities. Since the masters were destroyed, it took 3 long years for the album to see a U.S. release, by which time Belle & Sebastian were firm college radio favorites. This supremely accomplished debut album has a wide-eyed innocence that’s altogether charming, but a deeper look at these school-obsessed stories reveals darker themes of loneliness (“if there’s one thing that I learned when I was still at school, it’s to be alone”), rejection (“you always were a queer one from the start”), and a yearning for escape (because “your life is never dull in your dreams”). The band’s assured melodies are as important as their lyrics, however, as Belle & Sebastian’s tasteful strings/keyboard/flute/trumpet embellishments diversify what are by and large simple songs. What also makes the band unique is their conversational wit (“my brother had confessed that he was gay, it took the heat off me for awhile”), leader Stuart Murdoch’s lilting vocal delivery, and the way in which Murdoch writes so convincingly from the female perspective (“you know the world is made for men, not us"). The band may seem overly cute or twee to some, and despite its consistent overall quality the songs on this album aren’t as memorable as the ones that would soon follow. Still, as Murdoch sings, “do something pretty while you can,” and most of Tigermilk is very pretty indeed.
If You’re Feeling Sinister (The Enclave ’96) Rating: A
This Stuart Murdoch led, 7-member Scottish band (also including Sarah Martin, violin; Stevie Jackson, guitar; Chris Geddes, keyboards; Stuart David, bass; Richard Colburn, drums; and Isobel Campbell, cello) came from seemingly out of nowhere to create quite a stir with this stunning second album (but first to receive widespread distribution), which won rave reviews and appeared near the top of many a year end critic list. Murdoch has a frail voice reminiscent of Nick Drake (but with a lisp) that he uses to tell wry, whimsical stories about - well, let me give you a few examples. For one, there’s the girl who joins the track team, but who “only did it so that you could wear your terry underwear and feel the city air run past your body.” Other creative lyric examples: “if you are feeling sinister, go off and see and minister, he’ll try in vain to take away the pain of being a hopeless unbeliever” and “nobody writes them like they used to, so it may as well be me.” Elsewhere, Murdoch states “all I wanted was to sing the saddest songs.” The songs may be sad, and his characters are often even frailer than his fey voice, but Stuart tells his precious tales with a witty wink and a sharp, sometimes startling (and cynical) sense of humor (examples: “she was into S&M and Bible studies” and “when she’s on her back, she had the knowledge to get into college”). Some sprightly and often drop dead gorgeous melodies make this album curiously uplifting, as pretty acoustic guitars mingle with sumptuous strings and the occasional well placed horn arrangement for simple yet oh so right musical accompaniment. True, much like The Smiths this album (which sounds like it was recorded in the mid-60s rather than the late ‘90s) won’t appeal to everyone, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a cult following beckoned for this delightfully offbeat band.
The Boy With The Arab Strap (Matador ’98) Rating: A-
Well whaddayaknow, as I predicted these guys have amassed quite a cult following, and critics and fans for the most part once again raved about this third album. And for good reason, as its simple (slight even), sing songy melodies are by and large breathtakingly beautiful. Some of these songs are so gorgeous I swear I could cry (“Seymour Stein” especially gets me every time), though it should also be said that the album will likely seem boring to some. In addition, though the literate lyrics are again witty and thoughtful (if sometimes inscrutable), they’re also less attention grabbing than on If You Are Feeling Sinister (which most regard as the band’s masterpiece), especially since Stuart Murdoch has decided to spread the songwriting wealth (with more mixed but generally stellar results, I might add). For example, New York obsessed guitarist Stevie Jackson’s lyrics are more straightforward but his melodies are similarly stunning, while Isobell Campbell’s little girl vocal harmonies (she also sings lead on “Is It Wicked Not To Care”) brings another enticing Georgia Hubley-like element to the band’s sound. Plus, all seven members ably add in just the right amount of strings, flute, trumpet, or keyboards to enliven and enlighten their relatively sparse musical settings. Team players all, it would be easy for a seven-piece band to overdo it, but The Boy With The Arab Strap was another subtly smashing success that continued to charm the majority of the band’s ever-growing fan base.
Lazy Line Painter Jane (Matador ’00) Rating: B
Recorded in 1997 after the spectacular underground success of If You’re Feeling Sinister, these 3 EPs (Dog On Wheels, Lazy Line Painter Jane, and 3..6..9 Seconds of Light), were grouped together for the first time in 2000; they were previously only available in the U.S. separately as imports. And while Matador’s decision to release the EPs together as a 3 EP box set instead of compiling them onto a single 54-minute cd was dubious at best, being both expensive and un-listener friendly, the music here is predictably excellent. What makes these songs essential to fans of the band is that, though it contains the band’s charmingly lovely melodies and lyrical acuity/cuteness (such as Murdoch’s pronunciation of “Sebastian” as “See-baass-teeey-an”), the presentations are rougher and more playful than on their other albums. Some have suggested that these songs have more of a demo-like feel, while an increased use of synthesizers (particularly on Lazy Line Painter Jane, the least accomplished of the 3 EPs) and other atypical Belle & Sebastian instrumentation (such as the surf guitar on "String Bean Jean" and "Le Pastie de la Bourgeoisie") enables the band to show off their experimental streak. Of course, the band are at their best when they’re at their prettiest, mixing jangly guitars with luscious flute or mournful trumpets (in addition to strings, harmonies, etc.), and “Dog On Wheels,” “The State I am In” (an alternate version to the one on Tigermilk), “Belle and Sebastian,” "Lazy Line Painter Jane" (a stirring duet with Monica Queen), “A Century of Fakers” (which shares the same unspeakably gorgeous, flute-led melody as Stuart David's spoken-word piece “A Century of Elvis”), and “Put the Book Back on the Shelf” are among their loveliest songs yet. It’s too bad that Matador didn’t do right by the band’s fans, though the packaging certainly is nice looking enough. Recommendation: Copy and compile the EPs onto one album, call it The 3 EPs (a la The Beta Band), and sell the box set back to a used cd store to recoup some of your initial investment. That's what I did, anyway. Updated recommendation: Skip this and simply buy Push Barman To Open Old Wounds instead.
Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant (Matador ’00) Rating: B+
Although firmly ensconced from mainstream radio, this notoriously press shy Scottish septet has quietly managed to amass arguably the most rabid cult following since Morrissey and Marr, primarily due to the band’s oddly offbeat (though far less ridiculous) lyrics, which read like the best short stories. Stuart Murdoch’s lispy, lilting voice and the band’s charmingly delicate musical formula is also invariably compared to Nick Drake, though their songs also often feature Love-ly horns and Bacharach-ian strings. This release disappointed many of the band’s fans, as these somber, at times plodding musical settings simply aren't as memorable as those found on previous albums. Give it time, however, and it too is bound to win you over, since, in addition to this being the band’s lushest sounding outing yet, their sing songy melodies continue to ever-so-subtly grab hold. Only Stuart Murdoch could write a low-key war story (“I Fought In A War”), while the effortlessly lovely “The Model” provocatively talks about the “girl next door who’s famous for showing her chest.” There are other lyrical gems such as “a song or two, a boy, a girl, and a rendezvous,” and Murdoch even manages to poke fun at himself on “Nice Day For A Sulk.” The date rape chronicled on the musically sparse “The Chalet Lines” is far more serious, however, again demonstrating Murdoch’s rare ability to write sympathetically from a female perspective. Again, despite seven members (bassist Stuart David would soon leave Belle & Sebastian to pursue his other band Looper full-time, to be replaced by Bobby Kildea) chiming in the band almost never overplays their hand, as they clearly know the value of both restraint and subtlety. And though perhaps theirs isn’t the most exciting musical style, neither was Nick Drake’s, and Belle & Sebastian also deliver consistently beautiful albums. This one is no exception, and though it features a wider range of influences than ever before, with The Kinks (“The Model”), Todd Rundgren (“Don’t Leave The Light On Baby”), The Left Banke (“The Wrong Girl”), and even Elton John (“Women’s Realm”) being hard to miss, ultimately this album can’t be mistaken for anyone other than Belle & Sebastian. Once again that’s a good thing, though this album is a clear notch below previous releases.
Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Rough Trade ’03) Rating: A-
After coming from out of nowhere to win over many an indie heart, Belle & Sebastian later fell victim to something of a backlash, as 1999's Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant was largely underrated and 2002's Storytelling (after which Isobel Campbell departed) soundtrack was alternately dismissed or ignored. True, those albums weren't nearly as good as their previous albums, making them easy targets, but the band's new album, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, will likely silence the band's recent detractors and may even win them some new fans in the process. Improbably produced by Trevor Horn (Seal, ABC, Art Of Noise), this album is something of a rebirth for the band. Don't get me wrong, this is very recognizably a Belle & Sebastian album, but it's much more upbeat and poppy than past efforts, and Horn has helped them sound far more professional, adding bells and whistles where necessary but mostly providing a lush palette for principal songwriter Stuart Murdoch to play within. Yes, those of you who criticized the more democratic approach of the band's more recent work will be pleased to note that Murdoch dominates the songwriting credits, and that he sings with an increased confidence and a more varied vocal delivery, starting with the excellent first single, "Step Into My Office, Baby." For her part, violinist Sarah Martin makes up for Campbell's absence by sounding similarly charming whenever she opens her mouth, most memorably on the gorgeous "Asleep On A Sunbeam." As usual, Murdoch's lyrics, which are often very playful and funny, are far from your typical fare (for example, "Piazza, New York Catcher" is inspired by New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza's infamous "I'm not gay" press conference), but it's the music that makes Dear Catastrophe Waitress different from all their other albums. Consistently catchy ("Dear Catastrophe Waitress," "I'm A Cuckoo"), breezy ("If She Wants Me," "Wrapped Up In Books"), groovy ("You Don't Send Me"), and bouncy ("If You Find Yourself Caught In Love") melodies abound, and the band isn't above adding cheesy pop ornaments provided that they work. Fortunately, almost all of these songs work very well, aside from "Lord Anthony," a dusted off old tune whose sad, slow vibe sounds out of place on an album of shimmering, summery pop songs. Arguably saving the best for last, "Stay Loose" is an epic, tightly wound, new wavish rocker whose edgy yet catchy music suggests Television crossed with Squeeze; it may be an anomaly on an album of baroque, bubblegummy pop songs, but like the album itself it comes as a most pleasant and satisfactory surprise.
Push Barman To Open Old Wounds (Matador ’05) Rating: A
This compilation corrects the poorly packaged Lazy Line Painter Jane box set by compiling the Dog On Wheels, Lazy Line Painter Jane, and 3..6..9 Seconds of Light EPs onto disc one (for song details, see the Lazy Line Painter Jane review) and adding four later EPs (This Is Just A Modern Rock Song, Legal Man, Jonathan David, and I'm Waking Up To Us) recorded from 1998-2001 onto disc two. Few bands (The Smiths and Suede come to mind) have saved so many quality songs for non-LP output, and though the second disc is less consistent it still has some amazing highs. For example, the self-mythologizing, Kinks-y “This Is Just A Modern Rock Song” starts slow and mellow but eventually swells into a gorgeous yet epic anthem, while “I Know Where The Summer Goes” is is an absolutely lovely summer ballad with Hammond organ that really hits the spot. After that fantastic 1-2 start the results are more mixed, in part due to the shift in songwriting credits (though Murdoch’s “ Slow Graffiti” is another sad and lonely winner), but “The Gate” has Campbell’s charmingly girlish vocals going for it, “Legal Man” is a busy, percussive, sing songy garage rocker that’s surprisingly impressive (the band not exactly being known for their ability to rock; alas, the other full band composition, “Judy Is A Dick Slap,” is much less impressive and can be filed in the “failed experiment” bin), and “Winter Wooskie” and “Jonathan David” are above average (if not more than that) Stuart David and Stevie Jackson songs, respectively. Stuart Murdoch then assumes control, and the latter part of the disc features a slew of sumptuous ballads (“Take Your Carriage Clock And Shove It,” ““Loneliness Of A Middle Distance Runner,” “I’m Waking Up To Us,” “Marx and Engels”), while the whimsical “I Love My Car” is playful pop (lyric: “I love my Carl, I love my Brian, my Dennis, and my Al, I could even find it in my head to love Mike Love, I wish I could say the same for you”), the band thereby nailing their two best styles. Really, aside from the obviously experimental Legal Man EP (the least impressive one), just about any one of the songs on this disc would fit just fine on their proper albums, and in many ways these sonically wider ranging and more audacious discs are actually more interesting (if less consistent) than even their best proper albums. Few bands sound so charmingly off-the-cuff yet deliver such consistently well crafted stuff, and no big fan of Belle & Sebastian can consider their collection complete without these seven essential EPs.
The Life Pursuit (Matador ’06) Rating: A-
Any doubts about Belle & Sebastian’s deserved status as a great band should’ve been put to rest by the monumental Push Barman To Open Old Wounds compilation. By comparison, The Life Pursuit is merely another really good Belle & Sebastian record, one that among fans will likely always suffer by comparison to Dear Catastrophe Waitress, much like Arab Strap with Sinister. You see, Dear Catastrophe Waitress introduced the “new” Belle & Sebastian, the one who plays breezy, upbeat pop songs, even though the new and old band aren’t really all that different and possess the same strengths (beautiful melodies and clever lyrics) and weaknesses (overly precious lyrics and at times inconsistent melodies, particularly those not penned by Murdoch). The Life Pursuit is merely a strong continuation of that style but doesn’t really offer anything particularly new, though it is peppered with fun curveballs such as “White Collar Boy” and “Sukie In The Graveyard,” which offer up cheesy but catchy ‘80s light funk, “The Blues Are Still Blue,” which delivers chugging glam pop that almost rocks (there’s definitely more electric guitar on this album than the others, so on second thought I guess you could say that this album does offer something new via the band incorporating heavier guitars and funk this time out), “We Are The Sleepyheads,” which actually offers a fusion-y guitar solo, and “Mornington Crescent,” which ends the album on a rare bluesy note. Elsewhere, tracks such as the breezy “Another Sunny Day” (love those Byrdsy guitars and dainty female backing vocals), “Dress Up In You” (a rare slow ballad on which I love the fabulous little trumpet solo), and “Song For Sunshine” (love that airy soul chorus) deliver gorgeous melodies in the classic Belle & Sebastian style, but overall the distinguishing characteristics of this album are that it’s faster-paced, livelier, and more flat-out fun than their earlier records, which were moodier, more introspective, and flat-out lovelier. Not that there aren’t lovely melodies this time as well, but more than that there’s an overall playfulness that the band now fully embraces (see “Funny Little Frog”) that gives even the lesser songs (and there are a few of those) an inviting exuberance and vitality that stands up extremely well even after repeat plays.
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