It’s hard to think of any current band that’s gotten as much mileage out of non-album releases as Belle and Sebastian has. Right when the Glasgow pop collective was starting out, its streak of winning EPs helped to define the band almost as much its full-lengths, taking an all-killer-no-filler approach to them: When most groups might throw together a maxi-single with one strong track surrounded by a cover, a demo, and a moldy oldie from second guitarist’s first band, Belle and Sebastian never considered such offerings as merely something to tide over its growing fanbase between albums, instead taking advantage of each opportunity to try new approaches and develop its craft. Neither too hard nor too easy to track down, titles like Lazy Line Painter Jane and 3…6…9 Seconds of Light, both from 1997, helped make a new cult every time out for Belle and Sebastian, forging a personal bond between them and their fans that’s still uncommon to this day.
Over time, the quality and frequency of these standalone EPs have provided a good barometer for taking the temperature of Belle and Sebastian. So whereas the early recordings helped to build the mystique of the communal band, such mini-albums became fewer and farther between, as B&S eventually settled into a more common practice of taking an album single and backing it with b-sides that were definitely b-sides. It’s not nothing, then, that B&S’s latest compilation The Third Eye Centre feels relatively slight in terms of the level of craftsmanship as well as the sheer volume of tracks when compared to the earlier EP collection Push Barman to Open Old Wounds, even though this the new anthology covers a longer span of time, 2003-2011 to 1997-2001. Overall, The Third Eye Centre ends up more along the lines of an odds’n'sods grab-bag than a compendium of essential tracks. Indeed, there’s a lot more tangential stuff over the span of 19 tracks and nearly 70 minutes than you imagined there was in the Belle and Sebastian catalog, the set topped off with three remixes, an instrumental, and way too many non-Stuart-Murdoch-led numbers—around half the disc, if you’re counting at home.
So even though B&S apparently made a concerted effort at sequencing the collection, The Third Eye Centre still feels somewhat disjointed, perhaps not so unexpected with this type of project, but at least a little bit with this particular band. The choice of opening track is telling in this case, with Third Eye leading off with the Avalanches’ remix of Dear Catastrophe Waitress single “I’m a Cuckoo”: While the track itself is one of the stronger pieces here and the best alternate take in the B&S discography, with the Avalanches’ world-inflected samples particularly befitting the song, it still seems like Belle and Sebastian is ceding a bit of itself starting Third Eye this way. Interspersed through the album, the remixes of Write about Love‘s “I Didn’t See It Coming” and non-album standout “Your Cover’s Blown” break the flow of the collection, the latter an odd inclusion because the original—and superior version—is left off.
On the whole, it’s almost as if Belle and Sebastian is vying for its own identity and direction here, with the scattershot quality of Third Eye reflecting the group’s democratization. While Belle and Sebastian could likely have only stayed together this long by allowing more voices than just Stuart Murdoch’s distinctive and dominant one to shine through, the band’s musical sense of self has felt less stable the longer it has gone on, the result being more uneven material since its canonical early work. Certainly, The Third Eye Centre still does showcase some top-shelf songwriting by Murdoch, though it requires a little more digging to find it than you might think. The jaunty cocktail-pop of “Love on the March” and the spry, organ-laced “Your Secrets” find Murdoch at his brightest and crispest, while the tender storytelling of “Desperation Made a Fool of Me” matches the coy sweetness of his initial work with the greater proficiency of a band that’s undoubtedly grown as performers.
Most compelling of all on Third Eye is “The Eighth Station of the Cross Kebab House, originally appearing the 2005 Bosnia benefit album Help!: A Day in the Life. Here, Murdoch shows he can be as astutely political as he is achingly poignant, as he relates one of his characteristic tales of shy love while touching on tensions in Gaza as a young Israeli soldier—“the girl with the gun”—crosses paths with a Palestinian boy, with their biggest bone of contention being their tastes in music (“He listens to hip hop in Gaza / She listens to Coldplay in Lod”). Indeed, the humanity in Murdoch’s songwriting comes through as powerfully as ever here, serious and touching without being heavy-handed as he lets the detail-rich description fill in the story and play to your imagination.
It’s just that such moments don’t have the same impact as they should when they get lost in the shuffle as The Third Eye Centre goes off in too many directions. In particular, Third Eye feels as much like a showcase for guitarist Stevie Jackson as anything else, with enough of his tracks to fill out a mini-album under his own name. While Jackson’s compositions are sprinkled throughout the group’s discography, the contributions here tend to sound closer to his solo work than his B&S output, with more of an emphasis here on his twangy guitar pop on such cuts like “Last Trip” and “(I Believe In) Travelin’ Light” than the more baroque elements his main gig has become increasingly known for. Add to the Jackson-led tracks a few lead turns by jack-of-all-trades Sarah Martin on “Heaven in the Afternoon” and the remix of “I Didn’t See It Coming”, and it gets to be like there are too many chefs in the kitchen.
For any other band, The Third Eye Centre would be a strong enough original album, much less as a collection of b-sides and rarities. But since this band is hardly any other band, especially working in this kind of format, the hit-and-miss compilation is much more of a spottier proposition for a group with as strong and distinctive a profile as Belle and Sebastian have.