The Over/Under: Belle And Sebastian

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Belle And Sebastian started its steady climb into the hearts and minds of thousands of bookish romantics around the world in 1996, with the Stow College-funded recording sessions for debut album Tigermilk. Thirteen years later, frontman Stuart Murdoch has led B&S from a quaint twee sound into experiments with full-fledged glam, Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra-style balladry and lush, ’60s-inspired pop. Murdoch has further expanded on his unique vision through the project known as God Help The Girl, a movie musical he conceived, wrote and is helping bring to the silver screen. With the soundtrack already on the shelves, it seemed time to assess the work of Murdoch’s band and see which songs are underplayed and which are played out. (Read our 2006 Belle And Sebastian cover story.)

:: The Five Most Overrated Belle And Sebastian Songs
1. “This Is Just A Modern Rock Song” (1998)
This plodding, nonsensical number—the title track from an otherwise fine EP—takes a good seven minutes to arrive at nowhere. Notable mostly for a bizarre and wholly unnecessary breakdown in which Murdoch dolefully calls out individual members of the band, naming their prevailing personal traits (“Stevie’s full of good intentions/Richard’s into rock ‘n’ roll”). Irony be damned, this track is neither modern nor rocking.

2. “Piazza, New York Catcher” (2003)
The only cold spot on Dear Catastrophe Waitress, the band’s collaboration with producer Trevor Horn. It’s a lightweight number plugged up with odd lyrical turns referencing former Mets catcher Mike Piazza’s “questionable” sexuality. And unlike other flimsy lyrical turns by Murdoch, this track can’t be redeemed by a sparkling pop arrangement. With only an acoustic guitar as accompaniment, Murdoch has nowhere to hide.

3. “Like Dylan In The Movies” (1996)
A failure in both lyrical and musical execution, this track features a groan-worthy reference to Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back and instrumental backing that sounds like it’s bored of hearing itself. B&S must have agreed, as the live version (as heard on 2008’s The BBC Sessions) is far more potent and groovy.

4. “The Blues Are Still Blue” (2006)
One of Murdoch’s strengths has always been his fey singing voice. So to hear him try to come off as gruff and glammy on this track is, frankly, embarrassing. The band’s faux-glam backing track, which cribs directly from the Slade playbook, doesn’t help matters at all.

5. “Is It Wicked Not To Care?” (1998)
Considering the wonders she has created in her solo career, leaving B&S might have been the smartest thing Isobel Campbell ever did. Especially when you consider that the best B&S could do with one of her tunes was yet another half-asleep version of twinkle-toed twee pop.

:: The Five Most Underrated Belle And Sebastian Songs
1. “The Loneliness Of A Middle-Distance Runner” (2001)
As with many British groups, some of Belle And Sebastian’s best work is tucked away on the b-sides of its 12-inch singles. Case in point this positively dreamy little tune, anchored by a very ’60s organ hook and some of Murdoch’s most emotional vocals.

2. “I’m Waking Up To Us” (2001)
When Murdoch is on, lyrically, there are few who can match his wry takes on the love song. This is quite possibly his best effort in that regard. Free of the band’s sparkling take on Arthur Lee-like pop, his somewhat sordid, somewhat endearing tale of two star-crossed souls is the equal of novelists like Ian McEwan and Martin Amis.

3. “Sukie In The Graveyard” (2006)
Murdoch is also brilliant at creating vivid, short-story scenarios for his songs. It’s a very British affectation but one that serves this band particularly well. Take this vaguely funky tune that taps into the mind set a malcontented teen with artistic talent to burn. Sukie should be the dream girl for every misunderstood youth.

4. “I Fought In A War” (2000)
The band’s fourth album, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant, is one that even diehard B&S fans rarely take off the shelf. If nothing else, they should at least reacquaint themselves with the LP’s opening salvo, a gorgeous lament from a man sent into combat. Positively heartbreaking stuff.

5. “Wandering Alone” (2002)
Another portion of the B&S catalog that tends to get glossed over is the rejected soundtrack work they did for the Todd Solondz film Storytelling. The resulting batch of instrumentals and original tunes is a bit muddled, but it does feature this rumbling, bolero-influenced beauty led by guitarist Stevie Jackson.

—Robert Ham

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