Thursday, October 20, 2005

I see a wilderness for you and me, punctuated by philosophy

First, a brief note about my music posts: When I write about different groups, I am not doing so in any particular order, such as order of preference. Each entry simply reflects what I felt like writing about at the time. I'm glad I could clear that up.

Belle and Sebastian

Summary: Belle and Sebastian, the pinnacle of what is labeled both "twee pop" and "chamber pop," never fails to make me happy.

First, a brief history of the band (from Yahoo! Music): A band that takes its name from a French children's television series about a boy and his dog would almost have to be precious, and to be certain, Belle & Sebastian are precious. But precious can be a damning word, and Belle & Sebastian don't have the negative qualities that the word connotes -- they are private but not insular, pretty but not wimpy; they make gorgeous, delicate melodies sound full-bodied. Led by guitarist/vocalist Stuart Murdoch, the seven-piece band has an intimate, majestic sound that is equal parts folk-rock and '60s pop, but Murdoch's gift for not only whimsy and surrealism, but also for odd, unsettling lyrical detail keeps the songs grounded in a tangible reality.

Based in Glasgow, Scotland, Belle & Sebastian released their first two albums in 1996 at the peak of the chamber pop movement. At first, some critics in Britain's music weeklies tied the band into the subgenre, yet the group was too pretty, too delicate, to bear that label. Through their first two years of public existence, the band shielded their personalities, submitting publicity photos featuring a girl that wasn't in the band and reluctantly posing for photo shoots. Furthermore, they performed in odd venues, playing not only the standard coffeehouses and cafes, but also homes, church halls, and libraries.

My History with the Band: Sometimes music is inextricably linked to people in my life, and Belle and Sebastian will forever remind me of my friend Ross. Ross and I went to Grinnell together, but we really became good friends after college, when we were both living in Chicago. A whole group of college friends lived there, and a frequent event was the Sunday brunch. We would get together at someone's house and just hang out. We would listen to music, eat bagels, etc. Generally about 6-10 friends were on hand on any given Sunday. Ross and I would always work on the New York Times crossword together and frequently were able to finish it. This time period was also the first season of South Park, and my best friend Kathy and I were the only ones who had Comedy Central. So another aspect of the weekly brunch was watching a tape of the previous week's episode, and spewing our orange juice all over the living room. Anyway, among my friends, I was always sort of considered "the music guy," and often introduced my friends to new bands, simply because I was the one who somehow learned about new music. Well one day, Ross declared that he had a new band for us to listen to and was excited for me to hear it. So he put in the new cd, If You're Feeling Sinister by Belle and Sebastian. "It is not a duo," he explained. "There is no one named Belle or Sebastian; they are a group from Scotland." So it was background music while we ate and did the crossword and chatted. But I was intrigued. I loved the beautiful melodies and plucky instrumentation, but again, it was background music, so I wasn't really absorbing it. Or so I thought . . .
About two weeks later, I couldn't get them out of my head, so I headed down to Tower Records and picked up my own copy of If You're Feeling Sinister, and I was an immediate fan. Every song on that album is a gem. My immediate favorites were "Me and the Major" and "Judy and the Dream of Horses." The first one, "Me and the Major," was so peppy, quirky, and melodic; and the other, "Judy and the Dream of Horses" felt like pure pop magic. And like many B&S songs, the innocent treatment of love and sex makes for quite endearing lyrics: "Judy, let’s go for a walk / We can kiss and whatever you want / But you will be disappointed / You will asleep with ants in your pants." Priceless.
But in the case of B&S, I couldn't go out and get all of their other albums; If You're Feeling Sinister was their first U.S. release. (They had an earlier album, Tigermilk, which they rereleased later.) But soon their next album would arrive, The Boy with the Arab Strab, which is a nod to another Scottish band, The Arab Strap, but also a lewd sexual reference to an ancient sex-enhancement device. Oh, Belle and Sebastian. Anyway, this new album was also extraordinary, and similar in sound and tone to the previous album. From here, they went on to develop a different sound, but I always found it spectacular. Their most recent full-length album, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, apparently turned off some old B&S fans since it strayed into a new sound, but I think it is one of their best albums. The pure dreaminess of "I'm a Cuckoo" and "If She Wants Me" are among the finest in their discography.
And they are long overdue for a new album. Get on it.

Favorite Belle and Sebastian Album: If You're Feeling Sinister

Favorite Belle and Sebastian Song: "Judy and the Dream of Horses"

Other Seminal Belle and Sebastian Songs: "The Stars Of Track And Field"; "Me And The Major"; "Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying"; "If You're Feeling Sinister"; "Dirty Dream Number Two"; "The Boy with the Arab Strap"; "She's Losing It"; "I Don't Love Anyone"; "Legal Man"; "Step Into My Office, Baby"; "I'm a Cuckoo"; "If She Wants Me"; "Piazza, New York Catcher"

But if you are feeling sinister
Go off and see a minister

But chances are you'll probably feel better

If you stay and play with yourself


At 11:05 AM, Anonymous Kath posited...

ah, the brunch year! such fond memories!

At 3:10 PM, Blogger Manda posited...

Winter Wooskie. <3

At 2:38 PM, Anonymous Graham posited...

Hey Coach Dub,

Glad to hear your are a Belle and Sebastian fan. I am quite the fan myself, having been introduced to them this year by Brian, the editor of the college paper that succeeded me and is "the music guy" among my friends. They're totally well loved by me and all my hipster Hamline friends, of which there are many. They're like a staple. It's almost unhip to like them, since they are so relatively mainstream. You know how it goes.

My favorite song: Marx and Engels

At 6:01 PM, Blogger paulooliveira posited...

I am a B&S fan too. My favorite song is "Song for Sunshine".
The media should give more attention for this band.



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