Belle and Sebastian: The old within the newby Sally McGraw, Minnesota Public Radio
While many songwriters strive to create music that is completely new, some aim instead to merge new musical ideas with existing sounds and sensibilities. More often than not, they end up writing music that is stale and derivative. But a select few successfully create music that is fresh and original, yet captures the emotional and sonic atmosphere of a style long-past. Think of Gillian Welch, whose songs could easily have been written by a Dustbowl-era troubadour; think of Squirrel Nut Zippers, who were cranking out danceable big-band swing before a Gap commercial made that genre uber-trendy; or think of Lenny Kravitz, whose songs are so convincingly classic-rock that you keep wondering who he's covering. And, of course, think of Belle and Sebastian.
Since their first release in 1996, these Glasgow-based cult icons have been crafting sweetly whimsical tunes that smack of sentimental '60s pop. A casual listen to their seminal album "If You're Feeling Sinister" or big-label debut "The Boy with the Arab Strap" may make you want to grow out your sideburns or dredge up a pair of go-go boots. But listen closer, and frontman and primary songwriter Stuart Murdoch's seedy cast of characters will begin creeping into your consciousness. These unsavories will expose your unsuspecting brain to their fetishes, neuroses, and unsettling sins, parading before a backdrop of delicate melodies and childlike vocals. Before you know it, that disquieting juxtaposition of the precious and the macabre will have you hooked.
The elusive and idiosyncratic Murdoch never aimed for rock stardom, but he did toy with the idea of a career in the music business while attending university in the early nineties.
"I studied music as an option for one year at university, too. In my music technology class was a certain Stuart Murdoch," recalls B&S trumpet player Mick Cooke. "He was the weird bloke who always turned up late, wearing silver trousers. Never spoke to him then. In fact, I don't think anyone else did either. We were all too conventional to even try speaking to him."
A few of Murdoch's demos fell into the hands of Alan Rankine, who ran a music business course at Glasgow's Stow College. Rankine's program produced and released one album per year on the college label, Electric Honey Records - and he wanted Murdoch to record the program's 1996 release. So Murdoch formed Belle and Sebastian with the intent of recording two albums and disbanding. But when British pop fans got hold of that first recording -- "Tigermilk," of which 1,000 copies were pressed on vinyl only -- it became clear that a core of enraptured listeners would snap up as much twee pop as the band would put out. So bassist Stuart David, cellist Isobel Campbell, violinist Sarah Martin, drummer Richard Colburn, guitarist Stevie Jackson, and keyboardist Chris Geddes followed Murdoch down the road toward indie rock stardom.
Belle and Sebastian spent the ensuing years releasing increasingly popular EPs -- including "Lazy Line Painter Jane" and "Dog on Wheels" -- accumulating a nigh-fanatical international fanbase, and keeping that fanbase on its toes by submitting fake band photos to the press and booking gigs in libraries, churches, and homes.
"There was something pretty special about those days," says Cooke, who became a permanent band-member in 1998. "But it's like the excitement of a first love. We're married as a band now, our love for each other has grown, and we're enjoying our autumnal years together. And the sex is still as good as before."
But the autumnal years saw this groundbreaking group undergo some painful changes. Bassist David abandoned ship in 2000, on the heels of "Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant" -- an album that squeaked into the British top ten, yet was scorned by some critics as lacking focus. An EP and a soundtrack later, cellist Campbell left as well, and the group seemed to falter.
But their 2003 release, "Dear Catastrophe Waitress" -- produced by Trevor Horn (Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Yes) -- saw Belle and Sebastian return to top form, and also hinted that the group was tiring of the twee. And with 2006's "The Life Pursuit," Belle and Sebastian proved once and for all that they could successfully branch out from their signature sound.
This album is populated by Murdoch's usual lineup of choirmasters, oversexed schoolgirls, and aspiring musicians. It touches on recurring B&S subject matter: ambition, sin, piety, longing, and unrequited love. It even has a few tunes that feature the familiar shimmering guitars and majestic horn-and-string arrangements. But tracks such as "White Collar Boy" and "The Blues Are Still Blue" boast the distorted big bass and bluesy rhythms of glam rock, while the processed synth on "Song for Sunshine" recalls "Songs in the Key of Life"-era Stevie Wonder. Amazingly, these songs slide seamlessly into the Belle and Sebastian catalog. This album may contain some familiar elements, but it addresses them in new ways and explores them with newfound fervor. "The Life Pursuit" is full of vibrant energy, showcasing a seasoned group of musicians ready to push band boundaries with fearless relish and glee.
Why the move from a moody 60s to a jubilant 70s sound?
"A lot of it is just a reflection of the mood within the band just now, which is pretty positive," explains Cooke. "Stuart's health is a lot better than it was, too, which I think comes out in the joyous nature of the music. He just wants to dance these days."
Cooke's mention of Murdoch's health is a reference to the singer's ongoing battle with chronic fatigue syndrome. That battle may never be over, but this album seems to represent a welcome moment of reprieve for Murdoch.
Diehard B&S fans who balked at the experimentation on "Dear Catastrophe Waitress" will no doubt be further unsettled by the genre-hopping found on "The Life Pursuit." In fact, the band included some fan questions in the recent album's liner notes, and more than a few expressed fears that the music had veered from the familiar beloved. One such fan question prompted this wizened retort from drummer Colburn:
"Do you think and do the exact same things you did nine years ago?"
The members of Belle and Sebastian clearly don't. And their new thoughts and actions are well worth the time and attention of pop fans.