Belle and Sebastian

By Caitlin Flynn

WHEN: 1996-present (on hiatus since 2009)

CULPRITS: Stuart Murdoch (vocals, piano, guitar), Stevie Jackson (guitar,vocals), Sarah Martin (violin, vocals), Bobby Kildea (bass, guitar), Richard Colburn (drums, percussion), Chris Geddes (keyboards), Mick Cooke (horns, guitar, bass) Former members: Isobel Campbell (vocals, cello), Stuart David (bass, vocals)

ALBUMS: Tigermilk (1996); If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996); Dog On Wheels EP (1997); Lazy Line Painter Jane EP (1997); 3…6…9 Seconds Of Light EP (1997); The Boy With The Arab Strap (1998); This Is Just A Modern Rock Song EP (1998); Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A  Peasant (2000); Legal Man EP (2000); Jonathan David EP (2001); I’m Waking Up To Us EP (2001); Storytelling (2002); Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003); Books EP (2004); The Life Pursuit (2006)  // Note: All the EPs except for Books are collected in the Push Barman To Open Old Wounds compilation (2005)

HOW: I had always heard good things about Belle and Sebastian, although upon first hearing their name I thought they were some sort of weird Disney-character mashup. (It wasn’t until much, much later that I learned that they took their name from a French children’s story.) I had read a small review of If You’re Feeling Sinister in a Spin magazine retrospective in 2005, and at the time I thought that it just wouldn’t be my kind of music, as at the time I was heavily entrenched in new wave—see my writeup on The Cars—and thought introverted, childlike bedroom pop would do nothing for me. But I was still a little uncertain on my relatively new, wobbly music-nerd legs, so I didn’t quite know what my niche was, or if I had more than one. The following spring, I read a very favorable review of their newest album, The Life Pursuit, on Pitchfork and was immediately intrigued, and I became even more interested upon hearing little clips from the album on iTunes. I went out and got myself a copy at the first available opportunity (funnily enough, the other CD I bought that day was Arctic Monkeys’ debut, whose interest would prove very short-lived with me!). I instantly fell in love with the cheery, joyous, instantly catchy sound of that album, and I played it to death, particularly the Cars-meet-Roxy Music “The Blues Are Still Blue,” so much that although I still love it nowadays, I rarely give it more than a couple spins a year.

The thing is, I had seen from the iTunes reviews of The Life Pursuit that many older fans were angry since this album, along with Dear Catastrophe Waitress, represented a drastic change in their sound. Since I loved The Life Pursuit so much, I thought I’d take up the opposite polemic and refuse to listen to their older material, which I thought would be a little too cloistered for me anyway; yet I was still somewhat curious about it. As it were, around this time my enthusiastic older cousin burned me an enormous data disc of albums he thought I should get into, and among them was If You’re Feeling Sinister. I was unsure at first, but it had come at just the right time: I had just broken up with my first boyfriend, and although he was more like a brother than a paramour to me, it still hurt to have my relationship with him end, and musically I wanted something quiet and soothing to comfort me in this time. It turned out that If You’re Feeling Sinister was exactly what I needed, and I got to playing “Seeing Other People” on repeat at times as its charmingly stumbling piano and frank lyrics perfectly encapsulated the last awkward intimacies of a dissolving relationship. Yet the rest appealed to me too, and began to tap into a side of me that I’d suppressed since the beginning of high school, when I thought it would be best to take on a cynical and sardonic persona. If You’re Feeling Sinister was a little slower to grow on me, yet once it got its hooks into me it was stuck, and I quickly began to devour the rest of their discography—Tigermilk, especially, soon displaced The Life Pursuit as my favorite, and now is my third-favorite album of all time—only I didn’t come around to Fold Your Hands Child until this year, since it had always gotten mostly negative reviews, so I’d avoided it like the plague. But since I’ve recently gotten into more baroque-pop-sounding music, the album hit the spot for me, and I think it’s extremely underrated and definitely worthy of its place in the B&S canon.

WHY: Well, I’ve always been a lyrics person, and Stuart Murdoch is one of the best lyricists I’ve ever encountered. Some of what he writes is so eerily close to my own experiences that if I didn’t know better, I’d swear he knew me personally. “Expectations,” particularly, is something I can identify with strongly with my awkwardness and social woes during middle school and the first half of high school. (Only instead of making life-size models of the Velvet Underground in clay, I made a mosaic of the cover of The Cars’ first album—I’m not kidding!) Yet he’s just as good with escapist romanticism as somewhat wince-inducing snapshots of real life, and “Piazza, New York Catcher” most certainly turns me into a swooning fangirl, with lines such as “Elope with me, Miss Private, and we’ll sail around the world / I will be your Ferdinand and you my wayward girl.” As a side note, I was a little miffed that those two songs, being two of my favorites, were the ones picked for the Juno soundtrack—and I still haven’t even seen the movie—and I almost started to turn into one of those people complaining about them “selling out,” but then I realized that if it turns more people on to one of my favorite bands, so much the better. Musically, they’re just as strong, which is something too often neglected about them. And they’re surprisingly diverse in their music, too—from the irresistibly danceable New Order pastiche of “Electronic Renaissance” to the brief, joyous jangle of “Simple Things” to “Women’s Realm,” which goes from Vince Guaraldi-esque piano bounce in the beginning to a sweeping, lush string section by the end. Almost all of their songs seem meticulously crafted in every way, as if in listening to them, you’re opening up a package to reveal a wonderful handmade present just for you.

SONGS: To be fair, I tried my hardest to mix “old sound” and “new sound” B&S in here, as I’ve quite obviously gotten over my old prejudices and want to please anyone who’s a fan of the band, although personally, I’ve also put in a good portion of their mid-period, what with my newfound fondness for it. Although really, it’s not as if they started doing speed metal or opera starting with Dear Catastrophe Waitress, they just got a little perkier and a little less melancholy, but for the most part, the lyrics remained the same. There are also many songs from their EPs, since the material really is just as strong, only since I got to know those songs through the Push Barman To Open Old Wounds compilation, it’s still somewhat hard for me to separate the EPs in my mind instead of seeing them as part of that giant compilation. Although I’m a little sad that I didn’t get any songs on here that Stuart doesn’t sing at all—the only other voices to be found on here is Monica Queen, the guest vocalist on “Lazy Line Painter Jane” with whom Stuart duets, and Isobel Campbell on “Sleep The Clock Around” and “Women’s Realm”—what I aimed for the most here was to get as many songs on here that summed up their essence, with a particular emphasis on story-songs. May their tales, such as the teenage-prostitute troubles of the aforementioned “Lazy Line Painter Jane,” the art-student escapades of “Sukie In The Graveyard,” the religious inquiries of “The State I Am In,” and many, many others, draw you in and leave you hungry for more.

LINK: Click on the list below to hear BELLE AND SEBASTIAN for free on!


Caitlin Flynn is a 19-year-old college sophomore, calls both Springfield, IL, and Ithaca, NY, home; which one she is in depends on the conditions of her life and the time of the year. She is perhaps a little too obsessed with both music and linguistics — as the vast majority of her income is spent on something related to one or the other — but that’s just how she likes it. Some of her favorite bands include The Cars, Destroyer, Sonic Youth, Belle and Sebastian, Roxy Music, Stereolab, and the Magnetic Fields.

~ by Patrick Gosnell on December 14, 2009.

2 Responses to “Belle and Sebastian”

  1. Er, I inadvertently lied in my description. There is one song where Stuart doesn’t sing at all—Sarah Martin handles most of “Legal Man.” Still, he sings on every other song there, so that’s why I may have neglected it.

  2. I have admired Canon for some while. A few years ago I think that as a business it has taken their eyes off the ball. For a short time the company’s particularly camcorder design wasn’t what it used to be and in my experience, the quality of Canon’s camcorder manufacture was going downhill. HAVING SAID THAT, today I think they have become tops even though they are not the cheapest camcorders.

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