Saturday, April 4, 2020
Tigermilk - Belle and Sebastian
Belle and Sebastian
This is the 1999 re-issue of the Belle and Sebastian debut album originally released on Electric Honey Records as a college student music project. I recently read Stuart David's memoir of the formative years of Belle and Sebastian entitled "In the All-Night Café" which I loved. He was the first person Stuart Murdoch recruited for the band and gives an intimate account of the events leading up to this record (Murdoch's account of this in the liner notes is fiction.) The book concludes with the record release party in which David describes fellow students taking their free copies of the album and using them as frisbees in the street which pains me greatly to envision. It probably ought to pain them as well since original pressings of this album generally sell for hundreds of dollars. Belle and Sebastian have long been one of my go-to bands when I am feeling down so during these painful times I have been listening to them often. This is my second favorite of the band's albums (after "If You're Feeling Sinister.") I think it is one of the great debut albums of all-time which is even more impressive considering the chaotic circumstances in which it was recorded - a true testament to Murdoch's artistic will and integrity. The album opens with "The State I Am In" which is one of the quintessential early Belle and Sebastian songs. With its clever and humorous vignettes describing youthful ennui and narcissism delivered by Murdoch in a low-key sensitive voice over a jangle pop/chamber pop music track that gradually builds in strength, it was the blueprint for their next three albums. It floored me the first time I heard it and I still find it endlessly compelling. "Expectations" continues in a similar vein, only more cutting and anguished. It focuses on the suffering of an alienated female adolescent, when Murdoch writes in the third person he often chooses a feminine viewpoint. Isobel Campbell on cello and Mick Cooke on trumpet expand the group's sound, giving it the chamber pop flavor that is a Belle and Sebastian trademark. It reminds me of Love's "Forever Changes" which I consider high praise. The jaunty "She's Losing It" likewise features a female protagonist and includes some lesbian references that are common with the early Murdoch. Early Belle and Sebastian were often criticized as being "twee" but Murdoch can be pretty tough at times as demonstrated by "You're Just a Baby" which borders on being misogynistic. It is the hardest rocking song on the record with a strong riff driven sound bolstered by Chris Geddes wailing on organ. The side concludes with the uncharacteristic "Electronic Renaissance." It has a disco beat and is driven by a synthesizer and organ with Murdoch's voice being electronically processed. I always assumed Stuart David had something to do with the song since he pursued a similar sound with his solo project Looper, but in his book he says it was all Murdoch's idea. Apparently synth-pop was a possible direction the band could have followed, although I am very glad they did not (although it has popped up on some of their recent albums.) Side two gets off to a dynamic start with the propulsive "I Could Be Dreaming" which is driven by synthesizer and heavily reverberated electric guitar chords. Murdoch shows his tough side again with numerous references to repressed violent impulses in his youthful protagonist. The song concludes with a kinetic rocked up instrumental passage over which Campbell recites a passage from "Rip Van Winkle" by Washington Irving for reasons that escape me. I wouldn't argue if you called that pretentious but I still like it. The record shifts direction with the melancholy "We Rule the School" which features some lovely cello passages from Campbell supporting yet another portrait of feminine adolescent angst. The introspective "My Wandering Days Are Over" is another classic Murdoch song with strong support from Campbell on cello and harmony vocal as well as Cooke on trumpet that foreshadows the sound of the next three albums by the group. If I was a whole lot younger "I Don't Love Anyone" would have been my personal anthem as an adolescent/college student. I wish there had been a band like Belle and Sebastian back when I was that age, I would have loved Murdoch like a brother. Even though I was a lot older than the protagonist of the song, it still resonated greatly with me when I first heard it. It remains one of my favorite Murdoch songs and I adore the jangle pop that drives it. The record concludes with the chamber pop sound of "Mary Jo" which is yet another portrait of an alienated young woman. The song name checks the imaginary novel "The State I Am In" mentioned in the opening track which has a nice bookending effect. It is a lovely song enhanced by Campbell's breathy background vocals that gives the record a moving finish. I consider this a flawless album aside from the disruption in its flow caused by "Electronic Renaissance" which is nonetheless a good song. Murdoch's vision is clear and compelling and the band's sound is surprisingly robust for what was an ad hoc production by a band that was barely even a band. The group coalesced during the recording of the record but listening to it you would think they had been together for years. Belle and Sebastian is my favorite band after the Beatles and this record is a big part of my love for them. I have been playing it regularly for 20 years and it still thrills me. I'm not sure I have ever heard a songwriter who reaches me as well as Stuart Murdoch and the band's sound pushes all my buttons. They have helped me a lot these past few weeks. Recommended to Zombies fans who dig the Smiths.