In a review of The Third Eye Centre, Belle and Sebastian‘s latest collection of non-album odds and ends, I write, “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.”
While most bands tend to clear out whatever vaults they have for EPs, b-sides, and compilation tracks, Belle and Sebastian have tended to treat such projects with the same loving care and attention they devote to their LPs. If anything, some of Belle and Sebastian’s most compelling and developed material has shown up on EPs, singles, and other unlikely places, whether it’s adventurous detours like 1997’s Lazy Line Painter Jane and 2004’s Books or first steps in the directions they move into later on, like with the lite-symphonic mode of a pair of 2001 efforts, “Jonathan David” and “I’m Waking Up to Us”.
To mark the release of The Third Eye Centre, PopMatters presents the top ten Belle and Sebastian non-album tracks. Actually, what’s gathered here might not be so far away from a best-of list of all Belle and Sebastian songs, considering how these tracks touch on the breadth of styles and moods the beloved group has covered over the years.
This article was originally published on 28 August 2013. It has been reformatted with new videos and art.
10. “I’m a Cuckoo” (Avalanches Remix) (2004)
It’s blasphemous to suggest that outsiders could do a better version of a Belle and Sebastian song than Belle and Sebastian themselves, but that’s the case with the Avalanches’ remix of “I’m a Cuckoo”. Infusing the Dear Catastrophe Waitress single with a world music vibe, the Avalanches’ remake draws out a more organic side to Belle and Sebastian with casual wind instruments and warm percussion. And when Stuart Murdoch sings, “I’d rather be in Tokyo / I’d rather listen to Thin Lizzy-o / And watch the Sunday gang in Harajuku”, the samples of hustling, bustling chit-chat strike a note of extroverted gregariousness that shy, retiring types like Belle and Sebastian sometimes need someone else to bring out of ’em.
9. “Jonathan David” (2001)
“Jonathan David” isn’t just guitarist Stevie Jackson’s most triumphant non-album contribution to the Belle and Sebastian canon, it might be the best example of what his songwriting is capable of. Whereas some of Jackson’s B&S tracks can stick out in the flow of things on an album, “Jonathan David” impeccably blends in with his band’s MO, with its dense ’70s-ish melody and pitch-perfect orchestration. Thematically, it fits with Belle and Sebastian’s underdog narrative too, with Jackson playing the Jonathan role to King David derived from the Biblical tale, resigned to playing the third wheel in a two-person relationship on the song — as it ends, “You and her in the local newspaper / You will be married and you’ll be gone”. Evoking Jules et Jim, the video for the track is even more suggestive and Freudian, with Jackson and Murdoch as the opposite numbers.
8. “This Is Just a Modern Rock Song” (1998)
When “This Is Just a Modern Rock Song” came out in 1998, an aura of mystery still shrouded the members of Belle and Sebastian. Not long removed from a time when one of the band’s first press photos featured a friend in a surgeon’s mask, “Modern Rock Song” gave a rare look inside the band or at least some kind of semi-fictionalized version of it. Regardless of the verisimilitude of the sketches, what was important was that these “four boys in our corduroys” became characters as vivid and endearing as the ones they wrote about. So maybe B&S was being disingenuously self-effacing by claiming that “We’re not terrific but we’re competent”, though that description might have been apt for a band that was still relatively inexperienced and on the way up. The thing is, with the benefit of hindsight, Belle and Sebastian had reached their peak then, finding what happened to be the perfect balance between youthful precocity and developing virtuosity.
7. “I’m Waking Up to Us” (2001)
While Belle and Sebastian’s love songs tend to be about love of an unrequited nature, “I’m Waking Up to Us” flips that script as a song about love that wasn’t meant to be — as Murdoch puts it on the break-up number, “We’re a disaster”. Indeed, “I’m Waking Up to Us” ushers in a certain level of maturity for Belle and Sebastian, both musically and thematically speaking, as if the group had come through to the other side of their daydreams and realized they weren’t always all they were cracked up to be. With rich strings and bold semi-orchestral elements like flute and harpsichord, the song found Belle and Sebastian playing with greater panache and spirit, probably coming from justly earned confidence and proficiency. But it’s Murdoch’s jaundiced view of love that comes through most forcefully here, as he’s disabused by the illusions he indulged in on earlier offerings, realizing how little the romantic leads on the song have in common when he concludes, “I cannot keep the anger hidden any more / But lucky for you, you’re not around / My anger turns to pity and to love”.
6. “Photo Jenny” (1997)
“Photo Jenny” is the archetypal case of a typical Belle and Sebastian song, a sweetly downcast vignette just a little more poignant and finely wrought than most. Here, Murdoch captures the feeling of luxuriating in melancholy as well as he ever has, feeling forlorn with “all my friends…on their holidays”. But Murdoch doesn’t just make do with who’s still around, as there’s a sense of bonhomie and camaraderie between him and the lovable losers he meets and greets that more than gets them through the day, whether it’s grabbing fish and chips after work, vegging out to old sitcoms, or people-watching at the pub. While it can be hard for Murdoch to separate his daydreams from real life — “Oh, I shut my eyes / I’ll make a film / And the star of it is… Photo Jenny” — the track, like the best B&S songs, makes you realize how rich the mundane is and how the day-to-day isn’t something to just get through but serves up experiences to cherish before they pass you by.