Belle And Sebastian

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Tigermilk, 7/10
If You're Feeling Sinister , 7.5/10
The Boy With The Arab Strap, 6.5/10
Fold Your Hands Child , 6.5/10
Storytelling , 5/10
Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003), 6/10
The Life Pursuit (2006), 5/10
Write About Love (2010), 6/10
Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance (2015), 4/10

(Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

Belle And Sebastian, an extended ensemble from Glasgow (Scotland) headed by singer Stuart Murdoch, represented one of the most intriguing acts of the British scene at the end of the 20th century.

(Translated from my original Italian text by Nicholas Green)

Debut album Tigermilk (Electric Honey, 1996) is essentially the record by an oldfashioned folksinger, one who sings low-key tunes with intense pathos but little show. What sets him apart is nothing revolutionary, but something very deep. On one hand, melodies are tender, catchy and poetic. On the other hand, the accompaniment is due to an eclectic combo that is capable of experimenting with countless genres and instruments. The State I Am In sounds like one of John Denver's melancholy wails. You're Just A Baby has the staccato guitar, the youthful handclapping and romantic attitude of early Neil Diamond. I Don't Love Anyone betrays a strong Bob Dylan "accent", both in the strummed guitar and in the bluesy vocals. And She's Losing It harks even further back in time, to the ethereal, swinging harmonies of the "barbershop quartets" and the breezy ballads of country & western.
The band abandons that simple format and ventures into more adventurous territory with a fistful of songs. I Could Be Dreaming has the brio, the guitar reverb and the gospel organ of garage-rock, but the vocal harmonies of the Everly Brothers. Expectations vibrates at a thick, feverish tempo, while the trumpet intones a joyful fanfare. We Rule The School has the plain, dreamy tone of a Donovan and the plaintive tone of a Jackson Browne, but sits on top of a classical piano and cello sonata, and even indulges in a flute and harpsichord minuet worthy of baroque concertos. Electronic Renaissance even employs a disco beat and distorted vocals and sounds like New Order. As naif and understated as it is, the album gets very close to being a masterpiece.
Belle & Sebastian sounds like a slightly more erudite version of Magnetic Fields. They share the conceptual simplicity, the manic attention to details, and the heartwrenching melodies. They have more of a rural "fairy tale" flair, less of an urban intellectual stance. They descend from Donovan, not from Dylan.

The EPs Dog On Wheels, Lazy Line Painter Jane and 3 6 9 Seconds Of Light enhance the musicality of their ballads. String Bean Jean, Photo Jenny, Belle & Sebastian, Lazy Line Painter Jane, Beautiful and A Century of Fakers will remain among their most delicate madrigals. The three EPs will be collected in the boxed Lazy Line Painter Jane (Matador, 2000). String Bean Jean (perhaps their masterpiece), Photo Jenny, Belle & Sebastian, Lazy Line Painter Jane, Beautiful and A Century of Fakers will remain among their most delicate madrigals.

The two-disc anthology Push Barman To Open Old Wounds (2005) collects tracks from the EPs released between 1997 and 2001, including the material from Lazy Line Painter Jane, and the EPs This Is Just a Modern Rock Song, Legal Man, Jonathan David, and I'm Waking Up to Us.

The project is perfected on If You're Feeling Sinister (Enclave, 1997), which is a lovingly polished operetta, however delicate and understated it may be. What shines above all else here are the arrangements, which often take their form little by little as each song progresses. This can be heard on The Stars Of Track And Field, which repeats the same simple melody again and again, but with increasingly complex accompaniment: first organ, then trombone, then piano.... Piano and vibraphone punctuate the refrain of Seeing Other People (their carillon is truly memorable). Like Dylan In The Movies is their first invocation of the ghost of Donovan (as the small string section makes evident), which returns on the ballad Get Me Away From Here I'm Dying (at a trotting ska pace) and on the title track (a complex parable). These songs sound like unreleased tracks from the Mellow Yellow sessions. Murdoch then indulges in the whim of striking up Mayfly with the guitar and organ of Dylan's Blonde on Blonde and the vocal stylings of Joni Mitchell. The record sounds a lot like the Magnetic Fields, but here we have a singer who doesn't know how to sing. This can even be a good thing, if the goal is to sound simple and unassuming.

(Original text by Piero Scaruffi)

Murdoch kept publicizing his passion for Nick Drake, but that doesn't change the fact that The Boy With The Arab Strap (Virgin, 1998 - Matador, 2007) sounds, yet again, like a Donovan record, both because of his vocal register and of the suave indolence of the ballads.
The lyrics are still speculating on the Smiths' existential paradigm: the sad aspects of youth. But Stuart Murdoch is not a John Keats. His strength lies in the catchiness of his tunes, that here don't flow as smoothly as before. A Summer Wasting and The Rollercoaster Ride build up nice atmospheres, but lack the punch of the memorable melody. As a contrast, Chickfactor (one of the highlights) has a superb melody that a chamber arrangement of flute and strings enhances in an elegant and delightful manner.
The arrangement is often the prevailing factor. While the earlier records were driven by the tunes, and embellished by the instruments, this one seems (at times) to be driven by the instruments, embellished by a tune. There are, in fact, many more instruments, and they are carefully chosen and deployed. Waves of theremin and a locomotive rhythm propel Sleep the Clock Around, a typical childish lullaby that a bouncing piano turns into a close relative of Orchestral Manouvres In The Dark's Electricity and a dreamy trumpet elevates to epic proportions. The bossanova-sounding Ease Your Feet Into The Sea borrows Mediterrenean mandolin, gypsy violin and xylophone. The driving Dirty Dream Number Two is emphasized by a symphony orchestra. The Boy With The Arab Strap, a tale worthy of Paul Simon mostly strummed on the guitars, soars with gospel organ and a flute solo. But it is telling that some of the standout tracks are the simplest, It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career (almost a Joni Mitchell ode) and Is it Wicked Not to Care (sung, or, better, whispered, by one of the girls).
The band's limits are painfully visible in A Space Boy Dream, a lame version of the Velvet Underground's The Gift, even if, to some extent, it foretells Looper.
The line-up has now expanded to Chris Geddes (keyboards), Mike Cooke (trumpet), Isobel Campbell (viola), Richard Colburn (drums), Stuart David (bass), Stevie Jackson (guitar), Sarah Martin (violin).

Members of the group were busy on countless fronts. David had a "spoken word" project, Looper. Campbell, in turn, led the Gentle Waves of The Green Fields Of Foreverland (Jeepster, 1999).

Belle And Sebastian returned with the EP This Is Just A Modern Rock Song (Jeepster, 1998).

Belle & Sebastian's album Fold Your Hands Child (Jeepster, 2000 - Matador, 2007) shows Stuart Murdoch maturing as composer. A natural evolution from the enlarged instrumentation of The Boy With The Arab Strap, Belle's fourth album marks a dramatic departure from their amateurish and subdued beginnings. His heart-wrenching lullabies now exploit lush arrangements. The loser is the melody, that fragile and naive, albeit deep, kind of catchiness that was the pivotal factor of their early recordings' sublime appeal. Wrong Girl (aggressive, marching beat, epic trumpet fanfare, disco-soul strings, piano shuffle, Al Kooper-ian organ), I Fought In A War (jingle jangle, Morricone trumpet, majestic strings, harpsichord-like strumming), and The Model (breezy harpsichord, pastoral flute, dancing strings), are the songs that best maintain that high standard even if they betray the dogma of low fidelity. In his new role, Murdoch is displaying as peculiar a musical persona as before. Whereas rock music with lush arrangements tends to steer towards soul and pop, Murdoch's arrangements sound like classical music. Waiting For The Moon To Rise is the most "classical" of these madrigals: harpsichord, cello, piano, violin and organ alternate to drive one of their simplest and most effective melodies.
Too orchestral and too baroque, at times this album sounds like a bad remix of their previous album: the soul excesses of Don't Leave The Light On Baby, the light country lullaby of There's Too Much Love, the derivative pop languors of Nice Day For A Sulk and Family Tree, the cocktail-lounge calypso of Woman's Realm are alternatively reminiscent of Donovan, Neil Diamond, John Denver and Burt Bacharach
The folk ballad Beyond The Sunrise (a duet whispered by the two singers in a Leonard Cohen-ian tone, but augmented with backwards tapes and church bells), and the neoclassical lust of Chapel Lines (Nick Drake fronting a chamber trio) are the only moment of respite from sonic overload.
In this limbo halfway between the Penguin Cafe` Orchestra and the Verve, Murdoch is betting that the band will not lose its identity and it will acquire a new dimension.

The single Legal Man was not included in the album. Its back sides are Winter Wooskie and Judy Is A Dick Slap, their first instrumental track.

More poems are wasted on the single Jonathan David (Jeepster, 2001), that, besides the title-track, includes the dreamy Take Your Carriage Clock and the philosophical The Loneliness Of The Middle-Distance Runner.

Storytelling (Jeepster, 2002) is the soundtrack for a film: 34 minutes of instrumental music (a Mike Oldfield-ian fantasia that revolves around the melody of Fiction) and six new songs (catchiest being Storytelling, Big John Shaft, Wandering Alone).

On Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Rough Trade, 2003) Murdoch disposes with most of the depth of his intimate lyricism and appropriates instead the surface (arrangement styles) of both the pop/soul ballads of the Sixties and the synthetic pop of the Eighties (a` la Buggles, whose Trevor Horn is the producer here). Thus, one is treated to a parade of Chicago via Brian Wilson (Step Into My Office Baby, written by Stevie Jackson), Marvin Gaye (If She Wants Me), the Byrds (Wrapped Up In Books), Fleetwood Mac (the lengthy Stay Loose), and shameless bubblegum numbers ("Roy Walker", "You Don't Send Me", "If You Find Yourself Caught in Love"). The settings are impeccable, but credit the producer not the songwriter. The songwriter can be credited for an usual broad spectrum of feelings, from the brooding Piazza New York Catcher to the joyful I'm a Cuckoo (vaguely reminiscent of Thin Lizzy's The Boys are Back in Town); and for a couple of old-fashioned Belle & Sebastian's songs (Lord Anthony, Wrapped Up in Books), although they pale in this context of manic attention to sonic details. Whether a conquest or a betrayal, the sophisticated and dense productions of this album (and its carefree mood) are a far cry from the delicate and subdued atmospheres of Murdoch's poetic years.

The EP Books (2004) contained the jam Your Cover's Blown, that hinted at a change in direction towards a more "bodily" kind of music. The Life Pursuit (Matador, 2006) fulfilled that program by aping old-fashioned styles from Elton John-ian pop (the single Funny Little Frog) to Stevie Wonder-esque soul (Song for Sunshine), from boogie (The Blues Are Still Blue) to psychedelic-rock (White Collar Boy), from pseudo-funk (We Are the Sleepyheads) to country music (Another Sunny Day), etc. Except for a couple of songs, gone is the trademark fragile melancholy of Belle And Sebastian. It sounds as if Belle and Sebastian were merely imitators of the 1960s (Dear Catastrophe Waitress) and 1970s (The Life Pursuit) who, for a while, were not able to perform good imitations. As their musicianship improved, their creativity decreased because they got better and better at doing what they really wanted to do: play like their idols.

The soundtrack to Belle & Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch musical film was published even before the film was begun on God Help The Girl (2009).

Except for a couple of missteps, Write About Love (2010) is a classy parade of what they do best (melodically and rhythmically) dressed up with the production quality of the Dear Catastrophe Waitress era. While precious few of these songs are anything but dejavu (I Didn't See It Coming, I Want the World To Stop, I'm Not Living in the Real World), they have a unique way to resonate long after the last note has died out.

Stuart Murdoch debuted as a film director with "God Help the Girl" (2014).

Belle & Sebastian hit bottom on Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance (2015), a pointless collection of mostly uninspired songs (Nobody's Empire is one of the few exceptions). After four years they surfaced with the film soundtrack Days of the Bagnold Summer (2019), that contains both old and new songs.

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