The story of Belle & Sebastian is an unlikely one almost as charming as the music they create. The first album by this "collective" of young Scots was released in 1995 as a school project by friends of Stuart Murdoch, the lead singer and songwriter. Only 1000 copies were pressed, but the album found its way into the right hands and the juggernaut of the British music press, so subject to trend craze and teeny-bopper haze, fell in love with the band. If You're Feeling Sinister, their next full-length release, saw wide release in their homeland and overseas, to growing buzz and critical praise. A third LP is due out by fall on U.S. label Matador Records, a company that is picking up quite a stable of quirky international pop (not from New Zealand for a change) in the personages of Belle, Cornelius, and Solex.
In an effort to figure out what all the hype is about, I recently procured a dub of the hard-to-find first album, Tigermilk. This album seems strangely out of time in these last years before the dawn of the twenty-first century. In terms of texture, it mostly sounds like a lost missive from some underappreciated late-'60's folk rock/pop group. Less a relic than somehow timeless, with few exceptions it takes a step back from the grungy distortion or "electronica" beats that when done rote grate on one's ears. Belle & Sebastian are sometimes cast amongst the (mostly inadvertent) movers behind a chamber pop revival. Eric Matthews, Jason Falkner, Jeremy Enigk, and Tindersticks’ employment of baroque melodies and additional instrumentation beyond the traditional git-bass-drum-keys rock line-up have somehow tapped them as heirs to the Left Banke and other more obscure memories of the revolution that never happened.
Although Belle & Sebastian feature flutes, string, and brass, herding them into a category takes away from the fact that they make great, melodically rich pop music. Comparisons might do the same, but here we go: the whispery, gentle beauty of Murdoch's voice is indeed reminiscent of Nick Drake, as you may have heard; flaring trumpet lines give a very "Alone Again Or" feel to a couple of songs; the wry, off-kilter storytelling makes Murdoch come off like (a Smiths-era) Morrissey Jr. And that is a good thing. As unimaginative a record review technique it may be, Murdoch's lyrics are eminently quotable: on the first song alone, “I was so touched, I was moved to kick the crutches from my crippled friend” rhymes “When she saw the funny side, we introduced my child bride to whisky and gin.” The cleverness ratio tapers off in some of the later songs such as "You’re Such A Baby," but what thankfully doesn’t change is Murdoch’s unfailing melodic sense. His verses are more catchy and beautiful than many bands’ choruses, and his choruses often kick the songs into an overdrive that will have you singing along. Belle & Sebastian’s few sonic concessions to the world since 1975 produce mixed results. "Electronic Renaissance" has a chintzy faux disco synth wash and drum machine track that too much become what the song is decrying with its "Monochrome in the 1990's/ You go disco and I'll go my way"” climax. On the other hand, "I Could Be Dreaming" delightfully ends with singer Isobel reciting a monologue very reminiscent of the one in Pavement’s "Conduit For Sale" mixed above tremoloed guitar fuzz and below a slippery, very Malkmus guitar lead.
Tigermilk presents an amazingly strong collection of pop songs with a fresh, childlike spirit driving them. There are plans to eventually re-release this unheard gem. Watch out for it.