This isn't the first album I've heard by this elusive Glaswegian collective, but previous acquaintances with their music have left little lasting impression, always seeming too wispy and insubstantial to justify the considerable praised heaped upon them by the music press. Their fourth long player is, happily, something completely different. The old, much discussed, influences (Nick Drake, Simon & Garfunkel, Love) are still apparent, but I'm sure I can hear the ghosts of other great 60s bands bubbling up between them - Family and Fairport Convention spring readily to mind. Nevertheless, to write Belle & Sebastian off as another manifestation of the great Noelrock conspiracy would be short-sighted, because unlike the usual suspects such as Oasis, Ocean Duller Scene and Weller, Belle & Sebastian's influences are apparent only as pastel shadings, rather than being the whole picture.
About half of "Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant" rates as great music. There's the astonishing brassy Bacharach pop of "The Wrong Girl", for example, which evokes the spirit of The Walker Brothers circa 1966, and would surely be a huge hit if B&S' staunchly indie aesthetic didn't prevent them from releasing album tracks as singles. "The Chalet Lines" neatly scuppers any suggestion that Stuart Murdoch exists in some vacuum-sealed 60s flashback, being a desperate, hopeless portrayal of a woman coming to terms with rape. "Women's Realm" is crammed with gorgeous, interlocking melody and lyrics that teeter just on the edge of everyday consciousness, whilst "Family Tree" is an teenage outsider anti-anthem that cuddles up on the right side of twee ("We do Chemistry, Biology and Maths/I want Poetry and Music and some laughs").
And about half of "Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant" rates as merely good music, when Belle & Sebastian seem to stray too close to their idols ("Beyond The Sunrise" is a little too Nick Drake for comfort) or collapse into self-parody ("Nice Day For A Sulk" - although even here they pull themselves from the wreckage with lines like "Nice day for a jam/The Fall, Manfred Mann"). But that's scarcely a valid criticism: "Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant" is mostly immaculately written, played, produced, packaged and pressed, and heavily impregnated with the kind of itchy addictiveness that keeps drawing the listener back again and again.
BELLE AND SEBASTIAN Tigermilk (Jeepster)
BELLE AND SEBASTIAN If You're Feeling Sinister (Jeepster)
"Tigermilk" is Belle And Sebastian's debut, a college-financed album made as part of a Music Business course and originally produced in a limited edition of 1,000 by the Electric Honey label. Now thankfully reissued by Jeepster, we can see what all the fuss was originally about. And naturally, Belle And Sebastian arrived in this world fully formed, the sleeve-note mythology already in place. "Tigermilk" opens with one of B&S' finest compositions: "The State I Am In" crackles with tongue-in-cheek humour ("My brother had confessed that he was gay/It took the heat off me for a while", "We introduced my child bride to whiskey and gin"), set to a naggingly insistent melody. "Expectations" repeats the trick, a tale of a schoolyard misfit blessed with immortal lines like "Your obsessions get you known throughout the school for being strange/Making lifesize models of the Velvet Underground in clay". Think of prime Squeeze crossed with Nick Drake at his most upbeat, spike the whole with self-lacerating wit and you've just about got the measure of what Belle And Sebastian are capable of at their best. Faced with such splendour it seems churlish to criticise the primitive production of "Tigermilk", which can be something of a barrier to enjoyment when proceedings get rowdy (despite being strongly reminiscent of an early New Order b-side "Electronic Renaissance" just sounds horrible), or suggest that this early model B&S weren't quite capable of sustaining their idiosyncratic charm over a whole album. This is where they came in, and as such it's an important work.
"If You're Feeling Sinister" was their first contemporary release to be widely distributed, but listened to four years after the fact it sounds a little curdled after the freshness and vitality of "Tigermilk", if a little more cultured: the production has improved a vital notch or two, and there are no screeching synths waiting to ambush unwary eardrums. It contains a smattering of great B&S songs - "Like Dylan In The Movies" deserves an award for the title alone, "If You're Feeling Sinister" tops it with the lines "She got a special deal on renting/From the man at Rediffusion" - but moments like "Fox In The Snow" take the celebrated Nick Drake influence and run in the wrong direction with it, off to pastures fey and saccharine. What really sinks "If You're Feeling Sinister", and to a lesser extent "Tigermilk" before it, is the whip-smart clarity of vision Belle And Sebastian have brought to this year's "Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant", which makes their earlier fuzziness look more bumbling than endearing. It's not a bad album, but they would fashion far better.
BELLE & SEBASTIAN Dog On Wheels (Jeepster)
BELLE AND SEBASTIAN Lazy Line Painter Jane (Jeepster)
BELLE & SEBASTIAN 3 6 9 Seconds Of Light (Jeepster)
BELLE AND SEBASTIAN Legal Man (Jeepster)
Belle And Sebastian are one of few remaining bands who conscientiously ensure that their singles contain entirely new material, rather than endlessly milking their albums. Consequently, a little back-catalogue catching-up was required to fill the gaps before seeing them in concert. The material on these 12" singles is effectively interchangeable, B&S' familiar, fey tunery wrapped around perceptive lyrics detailing the plight of the sensitive suffering in contemporary society: think Nick Drake meeting Felt and trying to get it together on a Restart scheme. There are countless couplets of devilish jeweller's-eye observation and detailing within these sides, enough to make the "Dog On Wheels" and "Lazy Line Painter Jane" EPs classics of their sort. "3 6 9 Seconds Of Light" seems to dilute the effect a little, its songs being undeniably pleasant but lacking some of the bite of old. "Legal Man" is almost an entirely different bowl of cherries, from cover photo inwards verging on panda-eyed 60s pop that sounds like The Kinks meeting The Shangri-Las. The only other track on this single is the space-filling instrumental "Judy Is A Dick Slap", probably the least essential song in the entire B&S canon. Nevertheless there's a rich vein of fine music on these EPs, much of which ably demonstrating why Belle And Sebastian are the unofficial quiet voice of complaint and community to a disenfranchised generation.
BELLE AND SEBASTIAN Jonathan David (Jeepster)
"Jonathan David" is this year's Belle And Sebastian single, released contemporaneously with this year's Belle And Sebastian tour detailed elsewhere, and it's something of a mild and wispy disappointment following the brazen, brassy sixties pop homage of last year's Belle And Sebastian single, "Legal Man". It's a pleasant enough tune, but it smacks of B&S by numbers in a way that their recent releases rarely have. The b-sides "Take Your Carriage Clock And Shove It" and "The Loneliness Of A Middle Distance Runner" at least have a degree more bite commensurate with their titles, but really this is thin gruel from a band who usually offer their devoted listeners so much more.
BELLE & SEBASTIAN/BRIAN APPLETON Pavilion Theatre, Bournemouth 3 July 2001
Brian Appleton - Rock Musicologist is the latest nom de comedy of Graham Fellows, creator of John Shuttleworth and Jilted John. Mr Appleton recounted, through the media of music and comedy, and subject to legal restrictions, how he was present at the birth of many of rock music's greatest moments - for example, his key role in the inclusion of the brief gaps in Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel's "Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)". He also laid claim to inventing prog rock following teenage experimentation with modelling glue, only to have his creation cruelly pilfered by The Moody Blues, earwigging from an alley outside Appleton's bedroom window. All of which was side-splitting, frothy, funny stuff lent something of a second-hand pallor by the fact that The League Of Gentlemen's Les McQueen has already staked a pretty successful claim on Appleton's sad sack territory, which might be the ultimate of his performance's many ironies.
So to the famously tour-phobic Belle & Sebastian, promoting their marvellous "Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant" album a year after its release, and happily including a smattering of English dates on their world tour of Scotland. And nothing can really prepare the senses for the sheer strangeness of the Belle & Sebastian live experience: varying fluidly in line-up from one song to the next - at their most elaborate I counted over a dozen musicians on the stage - they seem to have been press-ganged from the sensitive wallflowers hanging on to the darker corners of the school music room, moving between instruments with a dexterity that would shame The Band at their Big Pink peak. Some of them even had sheet music, and when was the last time you saw that at a rock gig?
If it took all of that year of preparation to seamlessly knit the B&S brass/string/keyboards/drums/bass/guitar sound into the cohesive whole that wafted joyously throughout the Pavilion tonight then it would have been twelve months beneficially spent, because I've rarely seen so much love at a concert before, arguably only topped by the atmosphere at Gomez and Morrissey gigs I've attended. Despite being an all-seated concert people were dancing in the aisles before the end of the third song, Stuart David even inviting two audience members up on stage to help him with the vocals on "There's Too Much Love". By the end of the night there were a few dozen dancing on either side of the stage, who were only asked to leave to prevent some terrible imminent collapse.
Through an 80-minute set B&S seamlessly wove new material, obscure b-sides and even a wonky but wonderful cover of Love's "Alone Again Or", dedicated to their engineer, with Stuart reading the lyrics from a scrap of paper. There was a sense of deft improvisation, with the setlist being turned around on the fly, and a marked absence of songs that had been mentioned in reviews of concerts earlier in the tour. In fact many expected B&S classics were missing, with none of the early A-sides making an appearance and only the gorgeous, gently glittering fuzzglam of the title track escaping from "The Boy With The Arab Strap". They played an immaculate reading of their much-requested trademark tune "The State I Am In", and a stack of still-fresh stuff from their last album, including the Bacharach stomp of "The Wrong Girl", the nudge-wink almost naughtiness that is "The Model" and my favourite, just, "Woman's Realm". And they closed on a fantastic, kinetic version of "Legal Man", replete with numerous solo spots played on bizarre items of percussion.
So allowing for the lack of some of the expected obviousness, it would be a rare Belle & Sebastian fan who didn't leave the Pavilion suffused with a warm glow of something good after tonight's performance. Nobody - not even Morrissey - has chronicled the travails of the sensitive outsider in society with such compassion, accuracy and wit, and no other band mixes the alt-stomp of The Smiths with Nick Drake's wispy folk-rock with such seamless style. All this and a tour itinerary that takes in Dorset - these people make a wonderful band, and we should cherish them for it.
BELLE AND SEBASTIAN This Is Just A Modern Rock Song (Jeepster)
Being the final puzzle piece in my attempts to complete the Belle And Sebastian back catalogue jigsaw, "This Is Just A Modern Rock Song" is a four track 12" dating from 1998. It's a fine slab of old-school Belle And Sebastian that lends some credence to the proposition that maybe they've become just a little too poppily predictable recently. The marvellous title track is many minutes of Velvet Underground third album-style drones, Stuart David's whispered vocals and lyrics that almost deconstruct the entire Belle And Sebastian myth in front of your very ears ("We're four boys in our corduroys/We're not terrific but we're competent"). It's almost a textbook lesson in how not to sell singles in this day and age, which is what makes it so fine, of course. The supporting features are barely far behind, either, one of which, "Slow Graffiti", features in their live set these days. Fun for all the family, if your family can be bothered.
BELLE & SEBASTIAN I'm Waking Up To Us (Jeepster)
Its increasingly difficult to get excited about new Belle & Sebastian singles: this latest example, first heard by me during their Bournemouth gig last year, just sounds like half-witted sub-Bacharach & David muzak, the band's usual barbed wordplay seemingly muzzled, for once. This sort of material wouldn't be allowed within a hundred paces of a Belle & Sebastian album.
Over on the b-side "I Love My Car" at least has some kind of ambition about it, beginning by sounding pleasingly reminiscent of The Bonzo Dog Band's "My Pink Half Of The Drainpipe" and stabbed with outbreaks of trad jazz courtesy of Dave Wilson & The Uptown Shufflers. And the line "I can even find it in my heart to love Mike Love" always raises a smile. "Marx And Engels" is traditional B&S fare from its title inward: doomed relationship, small town, laundrette, political science, all the ingredients are present and correct, making it possibly the least disappointing moment of this uninteresting 12".
BELLE & SEBASTIAN Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Rough Trade)
Belle & Sebastian's fifth proper studio album delivers two substantial shocks to the system. Not only have the band forsaken former label Jeepster and signed with major indie Rough Trade, becoming rather unlikely labelmates of The Strokes in the process, they've also chosen to employ a former member of Yes on production duties. Relax, though: as the boffin in question is Trevor Horn the prospect of "Dear Catastrophe Waitress" being performed on ice at the Wembley Empire Pool is some way off yet. Horn's presence is certainly nowhere near as injurious to their sound as might have been feared, bringing a crispness, perhaps even a boldness that elevates them above any cruel accusations that they're little more than a sixth form concert band who happened to stumble upon a few precociously talented tunesmiths. Except, crucially, what hobbles "Dear Catastrophe Waitress" is that the aforementioned tunesmiths appear to be bunking off to avoid PE this time around, this surely being the first Belle & Sebastian album where the production values tower over the songwriting.
The single "Step Into My Office, Baby" is cheesy, feather-lined glam rock, gender-reversing the plot of the film "Secretary", and the title track's saucy brass charts and timpani explosions suggest Cat Stevens' Deram years (altogether now, "I'm gonna get me a gun"!), without being in any way as revolutionary as that might sound on paper. "If She Wants Me" and "If You Find Yourself Caught In Love" demonstrate the classic Belle & Sebastian sound from a distance only to become stereotypical, cloying fare close up. The melodically simple, lyrically verbose and sparsely instrumented "Piazza, New York Catcher is one of the album's better, briefer moments, only to be followed by "Asleep On A Sunbeam", a song as gentle, mellifluous and soporific as its title. "I'm A Cuckoo" has an agreeable chime to it but it's still a slim, insubstantial thing compared to the Nick Drakeian magic they've spun in past times. The Trevor Horn influence is arguably at its strongest and strangest on the new romantic reconstruction "Stay Loose" - if Visage wrote songs about corn flakes and television they would have sounded like this - making for one of the album's few bright spots.
Really though, the most charming aspect to this disappointing work is Stuart Murdoch's engagingly ramblesome diary entry sleevenote, especially when he starts gurgling like a fanboy about the virtues of Felt. This album promises so much but, like the spaghetti incident pictured on the cover, the problem is in the delivery.
BELLE AND SEBASTIAN The Life Pursuit (Rough Trade)
In which the sprawling Scottish ensemble partially redeem themselves after the plastic Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Trevor Horn? What were they thinking?), but, for me if not apparently anyone else, fail to clear the mire completely. But what do I know? My favourite Belle And Sebastian album remains the almost universally derided Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant.
The Life Pursuit deploys the usual mash up of twee pop and slightly lumbering glam racket (White Collar Boy, The Blues Are Still Blue), which at times coalesces into something thumping, stomping and unstoppable like Sukie In The Graveyard, winning through by sheer force of personality, which is not the sort of compliment that can be aimed at many Belle And Sebastian songs. We Are The Sleepyheads is vibrant and frothy, its bouncy backing vocals suggesting some kind of faux-Bacharach low budged cheesy listening extravaganza rescued from the neglected corner of a charity shop record rack. The gentle, relaxed closer Mornington Crescent might be the most telling piece here: its in no mad rush to impress with knowing cleverness, but its instrumental interplay is almost like Traffic at their most laidback. The albums bestest bits for me, though, are Dress Up In You, a confection of jealousy, deceit and ambiguity that might be their finest work in half a decade, and the elaborate, multi-melodied epic Act Of The Apostle II.
Even so, its not a particularly good omen when an albums sleevenotes in this case a fan Q & A that reads like it was scooped verbatim from the bands website are more consistently entertaining than the music they enfold. And the British vinyl pressing or my British vinyl pressing, at least is rubbish, spoiled by the kind forest of scratches that seems to be an increasing problem with recent releases, the latest platters from Bob Dylan and Scott Walker being similarly defaced.