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Belle and Sebastian

Frozen in the Moment

Nov 11, 2013 Issue #47 - September/October 2013 - MGMT
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As a trainspotter who can wax rhapsodic over obscure B-sides from The Smiths and extol the virtues of Felt’s Goldmine Trash, Belle and Sebastian‘s Stuart Murdoch is something of an aficionado of compilation albums. In 2005 his band released Push Barman to Open Old Wounds, a compilation of their early singles and EPs from their time with Jeepster Records. And it was recently announced that there’s a new compilation in the works, The Third Eye Centre, which culls B-sides from 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress era on through 2010’s Belle and Sebastian Write About Love.

The music industry has undergone a sea change since Barman, allowing one to wonder what the point of such a compilation is when the songs are at everyone’s fingertips via streaming services and digital downloads. “Anyone can make compilations,” admits Murdoch. “But I think there’s merit in how the artist approaches it and guides you through the process. We take a great deal of pride in these, as much as we do with our proper LPs. The artwork’s very important, and the liner notes have bits written by each band member on individual tracks.”

And indeed, The Third Eye Centre is painstakingly crafted and immaculately sequenced, feeling nothing like a glib cash grab. It’s an artifact of a distinct part of Belle and Sebastian’s history, with B-sides from the Trevor Horn-produced heavy hitter Dear Catastrophe Waitress sessions co-existing snugly with the less ostentatious The Life Pursuit and Write About Love-era tracks.

“The dynamics are very interesting,” says Murdoch. “I think it’s as good as our first one [Barman].”

The tracks veer from the grandiose synth glam of “Suicide Girl,” which takes on the erotic website that came to prominence in the early 2000s, to the lachrymose, brass-laden “Heaven in the Afternoon,” to the breezy, wistful “Blue Eyes of a Millionaire,” which is replete with quintessential Belle and Sebastian heavenly harmonies. But what so many of these tracks have in common is that they’re expository feminine character sketches, nonjudgmental odes to fallen idols that find redemption in their flaws.

“‘Suicide Girl’ was one of the tracks that didn’t make Write About Love. I thought it was a bit too light, but it’s talking about the Suicide Girls and that phenomenon. I think it’s still going. A couple of them made a video for it and I think it’s one of our most watched videos. It’s probably our most watched video because of the pretty girls,” he laughs.

“Heaven in the Afternoon” is sung by Sarah Martin, and her cooing vocals fit the song’s winsome theme like a glove. “I wrote that song and I can’t quite remember why I asked her to sing it,” says Murdoch. “But it’s somewhat inspired by the Edie Sedgwick biography. She’d gone through such a bad mental state. The only stuff she could take in were baby stories like Winnie the Pooh. So I wrote that one for Edie and the condition she was in.”

And Murdoch admits that “Blue Eyes of a Millionaire” would’ve made the final cut for Write About Love if it “had more of a movement to it.” As it is, it’s a gorgeous stand-alone track. “It’s about a person I used to know in Glasgow,” he says. “Rich people can buy many things, but they can’t buy actual grace and beauty, which this girl had.”

Murdoch’s reluctant to discuss the Stevie Jackson-penned tracks on the album, often lamenting their omission from the proper LPs and illustrating just how eager he’s become over the years to fashion the band into a more egalitarian outfit. The compilation even includes instrumental numbers composed by Mick Cooke, including the flamenco-tinged “Passion Fruit,” which serves as something of a coda to the Jackson-penned spaghetti Western twang number “Stop, Look, and Listen.”

As the Glaswegian act gear up to record their ninth studio album, Murdoch’s clearly proud to take a long glimpse at the past, even when he and his band mates are caught in less than flattering moments. “If you look at photographs of yourself from 10 years ago, it might make you cringe because of your style or haircut,” he says. “But at the same time it’s fascinating because someone caught you on camera when you were young and fresh. It’s been a very exciting process for us to do this.”

[This article first appeared in Under the Radar’s September/October 2013 issue.]


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