Despite their worldwide popularity and critical acclaim, Belle & Sebastian don’t really get the respect that they deserves. Perhaps it’s the fact that their music is so suited to melancholy moods that causes folks to ignore how beautifully crafted their music is. This band has created two nearly perfect albums, Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister, more than its share of sharply written pop songs, and, while they were at it, they actually did their part in reclaiming the EP as an artistic medium. Now that the band has departed for Rough Trade, Matador has finally released all of their EP material on one double-disc set, and the results are less like a rarities collection and more like an unlikely greatest hits album.
The first disc contains all the material previously found on the Lazy Line Painter box set, which re-released the original hard-to-find EPs into one handsome collection. These EPs come from Belle & Sebastian’s glory days, when the band was tapping into the same sad but quirky zeitgeist that Wes Anderson, in the film world, had found. Frontman Stuart Murdoch, like Anderson, is primarily a storyteller, creating an entire world of disaffected young people struggling with pleasantly aimless existences and muddled desires. Luckily, instead of writing awkward poetry, Murdoch assembled a gifted chamber-pop band which has the uncanny ability to transform Murdoch’s gift for subtle melodies and minor epiphanies into full-fledged epics of sound.
“The State I Am In”, an improved rendition of Tigermilk‘s lead-off track, is a perfect example of how Murdoch’s songwriting is complemented by the band’s expansive, orchestral sound. The song begins in a spare confessional mode, with the narrator recalling a dream: “My brother had confessed that he was gay / It took the heat off me for a while.” The rest of the track comes across like a novel condensed into a handful of lines, moving from a sham marriage to a priest’s confessional to an oblique promise to a “crippled friend”. Murdoch packs his songs with detail, but omits connections and explanations, creating lasting impressions that have universal appeal. The rest of the band follows through with music that is concrete as Murdoch’s lyrics are slanted. The melodies are crisp and unavoidable, the move from Murdoch’s lonely guitar to the full chamber pop band playing at once adds to the momentum of the song. The words and music mesh so perfectly that it’s no wonder that the band became the indie world equivalent of megastars.
The tracks from the first disc are all from the band’s early days, when they were working without expectations and were unknowingly capturing a certain kind of magic. These songs are less polished, especially production-wise, and much more personal than latter Belle & Sebastian songs. Occasionally, Murdoch flirts with straight-up autobiography on a few songs, occasionally appearing as his alter ego “Sebastian”. This sort of heart-on-the-sleeve songwriting also endeared the band to its audience, especially as it was conveyed subtly through the lyrics and music rather than through the overwrought histrionics of the emo scene. Of the 12 songs on the first disc, only two of them are not strong enough to fit on those two first albums: “You Made Me Forget My Dreams”, a mediocre piano ballad, and “A Century of Elvis”, a spoken word story-song by bass player Stuart David (later of Looper). The rest of the album is so great that it would take a full length book for me to truly do the individual songs justice. That said, songs like “Dog on Wheels”, “Belle and Sebastian”, “Photo Jenny”, “A Century of Fakers”, and “Beautiful” are without a doubt some of the finest in the Belle & Sebastian catalogue.
“Lazy Line Painter Jane”, however, stands out even among the classics, and the case can be made that this song may be Belle & Sebastian’s finest moment (it’s a favorite with Murdoch’s mum, at least). A duet with singer Monica Queen, “Lazy Line Painter Jane” is a typical Murdoch character sketch about the lazy, aimless life of a young woman who sleeps around out of sheer boredom with life. Perhaps spurred by Queen’s presence, the band goes for a full on rock and roll approach to the song, with the results sounding something like the Free Design reincarnated as a shoegazer band. No other song fully displays Belle & Sebastian’s ability to work with extreme shifts in dynamics. Opening with Murdoch’s almost-whisper of a voice and a soft acoustic guitar, the track builds and builds as more instruments are added to the mix. Queen’s powerhouse vocals, the exact opposite of Murdoch’s dry delivery, kick the song into musical overdrive, as shimmering guitars start overtaking the quiet acoustic ones. The track ends with a solid minute and a half of loud distorted guitars and squealing organ, a huge wall of sound that counts as one of the most exciting climaxes I’ve heard in any song.
The second disc, chronicling Belle & Sebastian’s maturity from the wunderkind phenomenon it began as and the mature pop act that it would become, is more of a spotty affair. This is the sound of the band’s messy adolescence. The EPs were released around the time of The Boy with the Arab Strap and Fold Your Arms Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, inconsistent albums filled with material that was at times sublime and at other times undistinguished. This EP collection, actually, is a more solid listening experience than either of those two albums. The concluding track of the first collection, “Put the Book Back on the Shelf”, mocks the “book” Sebastian wrote about himself, and urges him to write one that isn’t so personal. The second set of EPs distances Belle & Sebastian from Murdoch’s earlier material. “This is Just a Modern Rock Song”, in fact, starts as a classic Belle & Sebastian narrative about the convoluted personal lives of young hipsters, but breaks off with the admission that this is “a modern rock song” and with guitarist Stevie Jackson poking fun at Murdoch’s moping with a self-conscious description of some of his bandmates: “Stuart’s staying in and he thinks it’s a sin / That he has to leave the house at all.”
This new self-conscious pose, combined with a growing distance from the narratives of the band’s previous work, did little to inspire the band’s newfound fan base. Belle & Sebastian however, were not going to feed on that initial inspiration forever, they had to evolve to survive. Throughout the four EPs represented on this second disc (compiled together for the first time), there are countless moments which show the band trying out new formulas and having remarkable success at proving to their critics that they were not just one-mood wonders.
Where the songs from the first EP, This is Just a Modern Rock Song, sound like decent, but not very enticing, outtakes from The Boy with the Arab Strap (although Isobel Campbell’s “The Gate” is perhaps her finest moment as a singer), “Legal Man” really shows the band’s ability to reinvent itself. A solid blast of sing along mod-pop, an exhortation of “love” and “sunshine” as sung by a girl-group chorus, “Legal Man” was a burst of unmitigated fun that seemed to come from nowhere. Unabashedly reaching back to the ‘60s, the group finally realized its future would involve incorporating more of the sophisticated pop of the past. The two resulting EPs, Jonathan David and I’m Waking Up to Us, show the modern day sound of Belle & Sebastian in full effect. The band still explores moody narratives, but it does so in a more professional manner, crafting songs that recall the baroque-pop sounds of the Left Banke and Love.
Luckily, if Murdoch was no longer heart-on-the-sleeve emotional, the music could still move a listener. On the anger-laced attack of “I’m Waking Up to Us”, Murdoch reverts back into a wistful mood in recalling all he had did for his soon-to-be-ex: “I made her mother smile / I helped the kid survive”. Belle & Sebastian, as Push Barman to Open Old Wounds shows, evolved into professionals without losing their ability to touch upon uneasy emotions. These songs somehow evoke nostalgia for times that never existed, introducing us to some sort of eternal, aimless summer that always exists in memory but never in reality. In other words, if you don’t already own all these EPs, this collection is a no-brainer, it shows one of the best bands of the last decade growing and evolving while still producing songs that anybody not named Stephin Merritt would envy.
// Notes from the Road
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