[17 November 2008]
Belle and Sebastian have not been shy about compiling and re-releasing early material. In 2000, Jeepster put out a box set of the Dogs on Wheels, Lazy Line Painter Jane, and 3.. 6.. 9 Seconds of Light EPs from 1996. In 2005, Push Barman to Open Old Wounds collated all the old Jeepster EPs and singles for a comprehensive retrospective. This kind of nostalgia’s entirely appropriate for the wistful band. Part of it’s to the satisfaction of the obsessive, collect-everything fans they’ve cultivated over their 12-year history, but the group have no plans for a followup to The Life Pursuit, either, so there’s that issue of income, I suppose. I’m no expert in the lore that surrounds this much-loved Scottish band, but even for casual followers of the group, The BBC Sessions offers something more than passing interest. Gathering recordings the band made for the BBC between 1996 and 2001, The BBC Sessions includes a host of early singles and tracks from Tigermilk, If You’re Feeling Sinister, and associated EPs.
As a historical document, the album neatly traces the development of the group through these radio recordings. Belle and Sebastian have clearly evolved further since 2001 into polished and energetic quirk-pop experts. Still, their simple, easygoing back catalogue’s as appealing as it ever was. And there’s an additional reason to take note of The BBC Sessions—the last four tracks represent the very last recordings Isobel Campbell made with Belle and Sebastian, offered here for the first time. These songs are tightly arranged and played with casual expertise, showing the band between the strings-soaked Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant and the poppier Dear Catastrophe Waitress. The Campbell-led “Nothing in the Silence” stands apart, a hushed ballad evocatively sung and accompanied by accordion and strings. “Shoot the Sexual Athlete”, a speak-sing narrative song that relates an encounter with the singer-songwriters of the Australian band the Go-Betweens is straightforward (“I like Grant, now that I’ve met him, because he’s charming”) and simple, but effective.
The contrast between the highly polished sound of The Life Pursuit (Belle and Sebastian’s last studio album, from 2006) and these sessions is stark. Vocalists Stuart Murdoch, Stevie Jackson, and Isobel Campbell are often imperfectly tuned, slipping flat as they reach towards the apex of their range, or sharp on the falsetto, or creating momentary dissonance when harmonizing in octaves or major thirds. The wash of guitars in accompaniment, especially from the 1996-7 sessions, wilfully ignores its own mistakes. The result of this is much more charming than it is distracting. (Were you in doubt? It is Belle and Sebastian, after all.) Fans will be familiar with these songs—hearing “Lazy Jane” (an alternate version of the early single “Lazy Line Painter Jane”) and “Wrong Love” (an early version of what later became “The Wrong Girl”) brings the pleasure of unexpected recognition. But the best songs remain those that found their way onto the group’s LPs. “Judy and the Dream of Horses”, which ends If You’re Feeling Sinister, brings to its sawed drones a pure joy. “Sleep the Clock Around”, from The Boy with the Arab Strap, shuffles forward with assurance—apathy never sounded so optimistic.
So is this, in the end, a release for more than the faithful B&S fans? Truth is, it doesn’t have to be. If you’re not, and you discover The BBC Sessions, you might be surprised how much more there is to the band than “Another Sunny Day” and “Step Into My Office, Baby”. If you’ve been crossing the days off until the release, the last four tracks alone should justify investigation.