it's all Belle & Sebastian's fault! I never thought I'd do another fanzine,
never thought I'd be that inspired by a band again or feel THAT much about a
record. At least not what could be broadly classed as an indie pop record. After
the last Red Roses, I became so disillusioned with the whole idea of indie music: the lack of ambition, love or craft on show by bands quite happy to just try to make pale imitations of Sarah records selling to fewer and fewer people. I buried myself in a job I hated, listened to music all day that didn't move me, and came to the conclusion I would never love anything or anyone as much as I had before.
chance I listened to Mark Radcliffe on Radio One, and now if I ever meet him
I will just have to kiss him because he played a song then that left me stunned
for the rest of that evening and had me tuning in every night thereafter in
the hopes that he'd play it again. That song was "The State I Am In" by Belle
& Sebastian, and from the crackly
vinyl introduction of Stuart Murdoch's plaintive vocals backed by a simple, gently strummed guitar to the nearly orchestral culmination of the chorus, the whole thing just seemed to sum up some of the sadness and confusion and I was feeling at the time, but also had a muddled optimistic quality that lifted it out of the mundane. Following the spartan first few bars of the song, the rest of the band join in without swamping the vocals or distracting from the lyrics that display the rare gift of actually sounding like you are listening to a confession and not just some bad rhymes strung out to bridge the gaps between choruses. I went to work the next day raving about a song and a band no-one else had heard of at the time, or even felt the need to.
next few plays, I discovered that the song was the first track on an album the
band had made in conjunction with a Glasgow college music course, and that it
was only available via mail order. Sadly, the ordering details were so vague
that I contented myself with hearing the song and optimistically assuming that
surely music this wonderful would get a wider release. Well, after the band
had signed to Jeepster Recordings, the album briefly saw the light of day. In
one of the very few moments I was thankful for having a job vaguely connected
to the music industry, a dear friend of mine phoned up one afternoon to tell
me that a distributor had a tiny amount of copies in stock. I was straight on
the phone, the next day I had a copy of Tigermilk, pressed tightly to my chest--the
one and only copy the shop I worked in was ever able to get.
Even just looking at the sleeve you could tell it was something that little bit special, regardless of the fact that the latest Now! compilation doesn't have photos of toy tigers being suckled on the front cover. On the back cover, along with the lyrics (so you can read along and at least pretend you can sing with half the beauty of Stuart Murdoch), there's even the fateful 'story' of how Belle 'met' Sebastian and how this record is the fruits of their labours. Not that I knew at the time who was who or who did what (to be honest, I didn't really care). I just knew I was experiencing in the space of nine songs (save for the half-baked dance excursion of "Electronic Renaissance") a kind of spiritual rebirth in my faith in music to move me, to want to rush home just to play the album again and again.
I think I did the album (and Belle & Sebastian) a disservice at the start of this page by referring to them as 'indie pop,' as these are just examples of classic songs that exist outside the confines of fashion and could have been written any time in the last 30 years. I guess the production adds to this: the sound is crystal clear, but has a folky, intropsective air (but without chunky sweaters in sight) that almost makes the whole thing sound as if it were recorded live. The whole album also gives off an impression of being about and being for people who just don't fit in--maybe the first band to really do so since The Smiths, but without resorting to Morrissey's po-faced self parody. Even in the most melancholy moments there's a line to bring a grin to your face; it's an album where you can never pick out a favourite song or two simply because they're all that good, and after every listen you keep changing your mind.
Tigermilk now, of course, changes hands for quite scary amounts of money (as
late as this past April, Amanda paid £150 for her copy), and until the
band do finally re-release it on CD (or whatever) that price will go up and
up. Would I ever sell mine? Definitely not, but would I buy one at the current
prices? After hearing it, I'd mortgage my granny for it!
Quite shortly afterwards (well, it seems short now compared to the recent soul destroying wait for The Boy With the Arab Strap), they released their second album, If You're Feeling Sinister. I'd heard some of the songs on it from various radio sessions and couldn't wait to get my hands on it, but when at long last I got the CD home and pressed play, I felt so deflated. I just thought it wasn't as good as Tigermilk, and the songs I'd loved on the radio just didn't have that same spark when played at will on my stereo. Whereas Tigermilk is a love affair where you're immediately smitten, Sinister is where you see someone every day, finding out each time another wonderful thing about them until you realise after a month you can't live without them. I think it's the production: the radio session version of, say, "Like Dylan In The Movies" has the charm of the band desperately trying to hang onto the tune like Calvin and Hobbes hurling downhill on their sledge. Here the rough edges have been smoothed over and the sound is layered, so on the tenth listen you pick up on the piano part and the odd piece of percussion, and by then you've forgotten your initial disappointments and you've been humming the song for the last two days. Even now I suddenly find myself being bowled over by "Mayfly" or "Me and The Major" when I wasn't before, and getting such a glow at how good the album is.
After that it's all been a big happy blur, with three EPs released in quick succession, each brimming over with moments of pure wonderfulness. The second EP in particular, Lazy Line Painter Jane, is wonderful, as anyone who can out-Arab Strap Arab Strap with a story of a cat has to have something going for them.
I found out via the coolest mailing list (link below) and its chat room offspring that B&S fans on the whole are rather wonderful people, too. It still astounds me that a band I've only two months ago seen live for the first time have been indirectly responsible for turning a big chunk of my life on its head in such a wonderful way: they restored my faith in lots of things, not least of which is the murky world of fanzines, which I think is where we came in.
some belle and sebastian links for you to explore:
the belle and sebastian mailing list
the band's own homepage
Belle And Sebastian Random Link