AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #165 : BELLE & SEBASTIAN

Belle and Sebastian. I’m surprised that nobody has thrown in a guest ICA by now….and with one eye on the next again World Cup (to be held in 2020 and featuring ICAs #151 onwards), I thought I’d have a stab. I’m assuming most readers will be vaguely familiar with the back story of a band which has released nine studio albums, six EPs and 12 singles over the past 22 years. The mainstays throughout time have been Stuart Murdoch, Stevie Jackson, Chris Geddes, Richard Colburn and Sarah Martin, all of whom have been present since the very earliest of days, while Bobby Kildea has been with them since 2000. There are also three past members – Stuart David, Isobel Campbell and Mick Cooke – whose contributions were immense in establishing the band critically and commercially.

It was only when looking at the bigger picture did it hit me that in terms of quantity, and indeed quality, the golden era of the band was a relatively short spell from 1996-2003. There’s only been three albums over the past 15 years, all of which can be described as patchy, certainly in comparison to the early years. If you’re ever for an example of a band coasting somewhat and relying on past achievements, then this could be your landing point. It led me to put together a fully chronological ICA, based on the order in which the albums/EPs were released with one track per record. (It was also put together without me listening to any of the new material released across three EPs in recent months). Despite such a self-imposed restriction, it still hangs together really well…..

Side A

1. The State I Am In (from Tigermilk, released June 1996)

Things have changed a great deal in the music industry over the past 20-odd years and so it is unlikely given the growth of social media as a platform for a band to emerge in a similar way to Belle & Sebastian via a music course at a further education college in Glasgow. A demo recording of four songs, which itself would be released later on as the band’s fame grew, had led to the college record label, Electric Honey, funding 1000 copies of an album. It sold out almost instantly and the band signed to Jeepster Records who re-released Tigermilk in 1999. If you’re desperate to get your hands on one of the Electric Honey pressings of this outstanding record, expect to have to fork out somewhere in the range of £450, and even then, you won’t get a mint copy!

2. Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying (from If You’re Feeling Sinister, released November 1996)

If You’re Feeling Sinister was most people’s introduction to B&S, certainly outside of a few hundred folk in Glasgow. The formula adopted wasn’t much different from Tigermilk – back into the same small-scale studio with an approach to production which involved minimum overdubs. Jeepster Records were obviously delighted to get a facsimile of the debut, albeit this collection of songs was a notch-up on the debut given that Murdoch as a song-writer was growing in confidence and all of the band were improving as musicians and players. Without any imposed restrictions, there is no question that at least four, maybe even five of the songs on this album would make any ICA, but I’ve gone for the one which seemed to be the calling card….and which has an upbeat tune at odds with its title.

3. Dog On Wheels (from EP of the same name, released May 1997)

4. Lazy Line Painter Jane (from EP of same name, released July 1997)

The four-tracks that made up the demo had been released as Dog On Wheels EP in May 1997 and had sold enough copies to reach #59 in the UK singles chart, which was a remarkable outcome for a lo-fi recording by a relatively unknown band on a genuinely small and independent label with all the issues that were naturally present around pressing and distribution. The songs date from 1995 but the lead number somehow manages to convey more oomph than anything on the two albums thanks to Cooke’s trumpet playing being put front-centre.

The band was insistent that no singles should be lifted from the first Jeepster LP and instead agreed that they would work-up new songs for release as four-track EPs. Lazy Line Painter Jane utilises a guest vocalist in the shape of Monica Queen whose powerful and forceful delivery, recorded in a church hall, offers a tremendous contrast to the quiet and frail vocal of Murdoch. The result is an amazing duet that, vocally in style, brings to mind some of the great Country efforts involving Johnny Cash/June Carter and George Jones/Tammy Wynette while the swirling organ brings something new to the band’s sound, with the near six minutes being as far removed from ‘twee’ as can be imagined.

5. La Pastie de la Bourgeosie (from 3.. 6.. 9.. Seconds of Light, released October 1997)

Lazy Line Painter Jane had continued the upward projectory with a tantalising placement of #41 on the charts. It was just three months later, on 25 October 1997, the latest EP entered at #32….not bad for a band whose debut album just 15 months earlier had come out on a college label and whose follow-up, while selling in gradually increasing numbers, hadn’t shifted enough in any given week to scrape into the Top 100.

B&S were the new kids on the indie block and every magazine and broadsheet newspaper wanted a piece of them, and in particular their enigmatic frontman. The four songs on the EP typified the band at this stage of their career, with a folk-like number the lead track, a ballad and a spoken word effort sitting alongside a song that was a guaranteed floor-filler at your indie disco. With a lyric which references children’s author Judy Blume early on, namechecks a work by JD Salinger that is of most appeal to adolescents before ending with a mention of Jack Kerouac, the name most likely to be dropped casually into conversation by college/university students, La Pastie de la Bourgeosie is essentially an escapist number from the perspective of someone who has a romantic and unrealistic view of America…which is why so many journalists were desperate to land an interview with the frontman to probe him on where his ideas and inspirations came from me. Me? I’d have asked why do you write so many slow songs when you’ve killer tunes like this to unleash on the public.

Side B

6. The Boy With The Arab Strap (from album of the same name, September 1998)

I’m sure this will always be my favourite B&S song. Great tune and a great backstory in which Stuart Murdoch has a bit of fun at Aidan Moffat’s expense around the latter’s infatuation with a friend of Isobel Campbell – which Aidan himself had previously referred to in I Saw You (see yesterday’s song as short story entry).

7. This Is Just A Modern Rock Song (from EP of the same name, released December 1998)

This was the song that really made me think B&S were on the verge of real and sustainable greatness.  It deserves to be called epic, and not solely for the fact it is seven-plus minutes in length, but for the fact that  grows and develops from a softly-sung number by one man and his acoustic guitar into something which soars into the perfect anthem for this brand of indie-pop with its refrain of:-

This is just a modern rock song
This is just a sorry lament
We’re four boys in our corduroys
We’re not terrific but we’re competent

Four lines which seemed to capture everything I had loved about music since my teenage years.  Sadly, the EP marked the end of what I now regard as the golden and prolific era for the band in which forty-six pieces of music had been released across three albums and four EPs in less than two and half years. If they had called it a day there and then, they would still be recalled very fondly for the quality and bravado of their work.

8. Legal Man (from single of the same name, released May 2000)

Little did we know that the band would go into a bit of a hiatus after This Is Just A Modern Rock Song and that their return would be marked by the release of their first ever 45, with a lead song that was nothing like they had ever recorded before.  It also was the first release after the band had come to the attention of a wider public in a way that, all these years later, still seems surreal.

The Brit Awards 1999.  Belle and Sebastian are on the shortlist for ‘Best British Newcomer; despite the fact they were not a new act and that they disn’t have a major label lobbying on their behalf.  The ceremony, on 16 February, is broadcast live to a TV audience numbering more than 10million.  The category they were up for was one of the few not at the behest of a panel of judges, instead being given to the winner of a public vote via BBC Radio 1 that had been heavily promoted through tabloid newspapers, all of whom gave much space to a number of emerging pop acts who had enjoyed huge success in the singles charts with our Glasgwegian heroes getting just the merest of passing mentions. It was bizarre that were even on the shortlist given that, outside of evening shows, B&S would never have been played by the station…

Nobody had actually taken much notice that the award utilised a then largely untried method of electronic voting. The B&S fanbase mobilised as one, many of them making multiple votes through personal accounts, along with work/learning based e-mail addresses, leading to them winning the award to the astonishment of everyone concerned, including themselves.  It led a hilarious and rather childish reaction on the night from folk associated with the losing acts followed by the inevitable ‘Bell & Who?’ in the press the next day.

It took a long while for the band to release anything new – it was almost as if they wanted the fuss to die down and for them to get back out of the spotlight. The comeback 45 was a dramatic shift in sound and the upbeat nature led to a reasonable amount of daytime play. It also sold enough to hit the charts and give the band a debut appearance on Top of the Pops!

Legal Man was probably the first ever B&S purchase for many folk. If they liked what they heard and went out the following month to but the new LP, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant, then they were bound to be left scratching their heads given it was more whimsical and introspective than all of their previous work – indeed it was a record that many long-term fans felt was a backwards step that lacked the ambition and freshness of much that had come before and the first ever step backwards.

9. I’m Waking Up To Us (from single of the same name, released November 2001)

The 18 months between Legal Man and this single was a period where the band didn’t do much for me. Fold Your Hands… was a disappointment and the next again single Jonathan David was rescued only by decent b-sides. What came next was jaw-dropping, not so much for the music (although the heavy use of strings and woodwind took the pastoral feel to a whole new level) but the subject matter.

There’s break-up songs and then there’s this. The singer’s well-publicised romantic relationship with a fellow band member had run its course and he in all likelihood expected she would make things easy for everyone by taking her leave. It doesn’t happen and so he pens a really nasty lyric for the next single and insists on her performing on the record and taking part in all the accompanying promotional work, including TV appearances which must have been excruciating for her.

Cruel and humiliating for Isobel Campbell, she would gain a partial revenge the following year by quitting the band in the middle of a ground-breaking tour of the USA, and putting Stuart Murdoch on the edge of a nervous breakdown. It’s a song where the listener is best advised to put to one side the personal circumstances that gave rise to the work and enjoy it for what it is, and that’s an outstanding piece of music.

10. Stay Loose (from Dear Catastrophe Waitress, released October 2003)

The departures of Stuart David and Isobel Campbell, together with the lukewarm response to Fold Your Hands…, left the band at something of a crossroads. There were further faltering steps with Storytelling, an album released in June 2002 as the underwhelming soundtrack to an equally underwhelming movie. Looking back now, what happened next was quite drastic and almost a make-or-break period for the band with the decision to leave Jeepster and sign to Rough Trade and to agree to the label’s suggestion of bringing on board an experienced producer to help mould and shape the diverse sounds that everyone was bringing to the party.

There are some fans who were bitterly disappointed with the impact Trevor Horn had on the band but I’m someone who thinks Dear Catastrophe Waitress is among their strongest pieces of work. It was certainly a huge return to form, albeit with a sound that was more pop-orientated than before, and I don’t think any of the subsequent albums have over the past 15 years have been consistently as enjoyable a listen and it was a no-brainer to include something from the LP on the ICA.

There were a number of strong candidates but at the same time I was conscious that what had come before meant that the track from DCW would have to close the ICA and so the decision was, in a sense, made for me. Stay Loose, in the words of one reviewer at the time is ‘innovative, funky, and twinkling with subtle electronica that thrums with a newly found confidence’. It made a perfect ending to a wonderfully unpredictable album.

So that’s my stab at a B&S ICA…..anyone inspired to offer up a second volme with ten completely different songs?

JC

10 thoughts on “AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #165 : BELLE & SEBASTIAN

  1. Great stuff , will have a go at vol 2 especially as there are some gems in the later lps. Can heartily recommend Stuart David’s book about the birth of the band

  2. Excellent stuff

    they were so so good up until This is just a modern rock song – especially slow grafitti – i love that song

  3. One of those rare ICAs where I have every track and many more besides. Agree with billisdead on Century Of Fakers. The ICA did prompt me to play DCW in its entirety – which I haven’t done for a while. I’m with you on it, a great album and the right closer as well.

  4. Great songs, great post, great band. I have a soft spot for “Step Into MY Office, Baby,” but, really, B&S could have 4 ICAs and they’d all be excellent. Nice one, JC.

  5. I got into them with those early eps and lots of the songs from that period are good but Modern Rock Song is something else again- like you I thought they were on the cusp of true greatness. The song is mixed up for me with Isaac being born and listening to it when he was only weeks old with the volume turned right down so it wouldn’t disturb him, but the way it builds up is great and the verse you quoted nails so many things. Then he was diagnosed deaf so the volume wouldn’t have bothered him- and the 2 things are glued together for me.

    I liked DCW, too Step Into My Office and especially Stay Loose (which someone described as the Clash via Burt Bacharach).

  6. One of those that takes some bravery, JC… a band where cutting it down to 10 is just about impossible without most of us thinking you missed something. A great group of songs here, though. There’s no arguing that.

  7. Good work – and I’m sad to say I agree with you regarding the recent coasting. The last couple of albums haven’t done much for me at all. Musically they’re OK, but Murdoch’s lyrical voice appears to have been watered down so much that the songs don’t appear to be about anything anymore.

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