Scotland Week: Interpreting History: 10 Essential Lines and Scars of Belle and Sebastian

Sep 05, 2014
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We have a special theme on Under the Radar's website this week which we're simply calling Scotland Week. All throughout the week we will be posting interviews, reviews, lists, and blog posts relating to Scotland and in particular Scottish music.

Belle and Sebastian built their artistic and fan-friendly reputation in the mid- to late-'90s releasing terrific EPs in between their highly acclaimed and monochromatically decorated LPs, a rare feat for any post-'60s band. Choosing 10 songs from a deep and consistent catalog that best represent the group's long and storied career seems more fitting than choosing what would surely be a hotly contested best-of list. Therefore, this is ranked in chronological order. By Gary Knight

"The State I Am In"

Tigermilk

1996

Looking back, it sounds like a mission statement, the band ushering in their debut much in the same manor they would their next three LPs: with singer and primary songwriter Stuart Murdoch issuing a highly arresting and wry lyric over a quietly shuffled acoustic guitar. By the time the band kicks in, with an entrance that suggests a descending from pop heaven, they've already got you by the brain, the heart, and the funny bone.

 

"The Fox in the Snow"

If You're Feeling Sinister

1996

The centerpiece of their most indelible and consistent record, "The Fox In the Snow" is a sublime piano ballad, overflowing with contained feeling, and embodying the thoughtful-but powerfully melodic-nature of the band. Melancholia is rarely this heart-warming.

 

"Lazy Line Painter Jane"

Lazy Line Painter Jane

1997

A rousing and hypnotic number, the title track to this early EP feels delivered as if by a highly literate and polite motorcycle gang that has stolen the church band's instruments.

 

"Slow Graffiti"

This is Just Modern Rock Song

1998

A hidden gem, "Slow Graffiti" is arguably the band's greatest marriage of lyric and melody. The existential musings of the song's protagonist, who wishes to read history via the lines and scars of a portrait of his future self (what a wonderful notion that is), rise and fall in achingly beautiful fashion, befitting the fey lilt of Murdoch's singing voice. When thought about within the context of the singer's well-documented struggle with illness, pre-Belle and Sebastian, how fitting that the song begins with him, and him alone with spare piano, until his friends and cohorts enter the fray?

 

"The Boy with the Arab Strap"

The Boy with the Arab Strap

1998

The band seemed to be firing on all cylinders by the time of its commercial breakthrough, and you can tell, with the songwriting brimming with confidence and the album featuring several members on lead vocal (to the chagrin of some fans and critics). The title track however is an undisputed masterpiece, wonderfully arranged and executed (listen to the various keyboards, for one). Featuring a groove for the ages, it is known to inspire delirium-like happiness and dancing in those with no business performing the latter.

 

"Jonathan David"

Belle & Sebastian Sing Jonathan David

2001

Baroque-like in style (if not Zombies-like), and sung by guitarist, Stevie Jackson with splendid comic resignation, "Jonathan David" is part of a three-song set that Murdoch told The Onion's A.V. Club in 2003 was as close to perfection as the band had come since their debut.

 

"Step Into My Office, Baby"

Dear Catastrophe Waitress

2003

A brilliant signifier of rebirth (from a listener's standpoint) after both the departure of founding member Isobel Campbell in 2002, and grumblings from some critics and fans that the band was beginning to spin its wheels, "Step Into My Office, Baby" propels Belle and Sebastian into a new recording phase (after a tremendous run with the oft-overlooked producer, Tony Doogan), via the ornate and career redefining Trevor Horn-produced album, Dear Catastrophe Waitress. It is a breath of fresh air, announcing itself, splendidly, with woodwind, brass, and percussion, which serve as the backdrop to Murdoch's cheeky twist on office sexual politics.

 

"Piazza, New York Catcher"

Dear Catastrophe Waitress

2003

With its simple arrangement of folk guitar and voice, "Piazza, New York Catcher" is unlike anything else on Dear Catastrophe Waitress, but achieves significant status in the band's canon with a highly-entertaining lyric and a melody that suggests an old whaling tune, over which Murdoch muses sentimentally about the courting of the woman he would eventually marry, referencing a few of his favorite things along the way: The Left Banke, San Francisco, and baseball. The shout-out to the former might be the only one anyone's ever put to record, but Murdoch might as well have been winking in Phil Ochs' direction when he wrote this truly wonderful song.

 

"Funny Little Frog"

The Life Pursuit

2006

Masterfully produced by Tony Hoffer, and one of many standouts on an album bursting at the seams with high-energy pop, "Funny Little Frog" demands your attention, not merely for the quiet desperation it personifies, but for the neat trick of conveying imaginary love not marred by self-loathing. Murdoch deserves a lot of credit for instilling dignity in his character, and for finding new emotional range as a singer, practically obliterating any notion of his once stock-in-trade fey vocal tendencies. He sounds nearly hysterical, but in control, when announcing, "I don't dare to touch your hand/I don't dare to think of you/In a physical way/And I don't know how you smell" during the song's climatic final moments.

 

"I Want the World to Stop"

Write About Love

2010

Notable for its slinky bass, alone, "I Want the World to Stop" resembles a less melodramatic "Lovesong" (by The Cure), but with similar urgency in conveying its live-in-the-moment mantra, amidst an awareness of the inevitability and natural progression of things. When Murdoch talks of saying a prayer for every car he passes in rush-hour traffic, it doesn't sound like condescension, just a man (and a band) taking stock in things, and hoping you are, too.

 

Honorable Mentions

"I Could Be Dreaming," "The Stars of Track and Field," "If You're Feeling Sinister," "This Is Just a Modern Rock Song," "Dirty Dream Number Two," "I Fought in a War," "The Model," "Act of the Apostle," "We Are the Sleepyheads," and "Your Cover's Blown."

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