A few years ago, Spectrum Culture debuted a new type of feature called PLAYLIST. The idea is simple enough: make a playlist (with mix tapes and CDs becoming so unfortunately passé) centered around one artist or band with a deep catalog. There is only one parameter, however. Our charge is to limit our playlist to just one song per album per discography. This time around we decided to pick the best of indie darlings Belle & Sebastian. It wasn’t easy. Not only did we have some great albums to pore over, we also considered EPs and singles, picking a few plumb tracks to complement the standard long-players.
So once again, eight of us got together, butted heads and hashed out this list. We hope it not only motivates you to dig into your Belle & Sebastian collection again, but to come up with your own lists. PLAYLIST will be a recurring feature here on Spectrum Culture, so please tune in, check them out and share your thoughts. Enjoy! – David Harris
“I Could Be Dreaming” from Tigermilk (1996)
Though it took Belle & Sebastian one more album to find their iconic sound – a mix of pastoral rock, mod-soul horns and Scottish storytelling folk – their self-released debut Tigermilk suggests many of the styles they would embrace over the next decade. Its limited release made it a rarity until a re-release to eager ears in 1999, the band quickly outgrowing the scope of Stuart Murdoch’s music business school final project way back in 1996. Tigermilk is decidedly more lo-fi and pensive than some of B&S’s more ambitious later work, but does offer a few gems that made the album a valuable discovery for fans of the group’s breakthrough If You’re Feeling Sinister.
“I Could Be Dreaming” is one of those gems, and also plays much more like Belle & Sebastian at its unique best – all playful guitars, ’60s era keys and softly sung vocals. It’s sashaying rhythm feels fresh and dance-friendly no matter how many times it plays and its edgier musical tone helps the song escape some of the tiresome plodding of the band’s more saccharine and delicate folk tracks. More so, Murdoch’s story of love-fueled malice and unfulfilled lofty ambitions set the bar high for his later writing.
But it’s really just a simple retro rock song until the “la la la” breakdown towards those last wonderful moments, where a young girl’s spoken-word tale filters through the thrashing garage-guitar and fluttering keyboard. There B&S set themselves apart from insufficient critical “chamber-pop” evaluations and meager grassroots popularity. Murdoch and company may not have been dreaming of grander things themselves, only wishing to produce an album or two as a fun hobby project, but this track alone offers proof that they were destined for grander things. – Michael Merline
“Get Me Away From Here I’m Dying” from If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996)
Though Tigermilk is Belle & Sebastian’s first official album, most people learned about the band via their first Matador release If You’re Feeling Sinister. The album arrived as a mellow shock to a music world obsessed with grunge. Though twee Stuart Murdoch would never stand a chance in a fight against Eddie Vedder or Chris Cornell, the insidious little tunes on Sinister are the sneaky poison to grunge’s sledgehammer.
“Get Me Away From Here I’m Dying” is perhaps the best track on a collection full of whimsical songs. Though it set the template for many of Belle & Sebastian’s later tunes (only to be destroyed on 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress), the preciousness on “Dying” was a fresh blend of literate, wry lyricism, the best of ’60s folk combined with an undeniable indie streak and attitude.
Murdoch’s narrator could very easily be one of the people couched in indifference in Paul Simon’s “The Dangling Conversation,” yet it is that jaded existence he is struggling to avoid. “Get me away from here I’m dying/ Play me a song to set me free/ Nobody writes them like they used to/ So it may as well be me,” the song begins. What is this narrator dying from? Consumption? Melancholy? Nope. It’s most likely that he is dying of boredom and his naïve nature permits him to dream of a distant land far away from his mundane existence where something, anything is better.
This is a song for rainy afternoons where the mind wanders to lands and lovers far away but still near to the heart. “Thought there was love in everyone and everything,” the narrator continues, cursing his own naïveté at such a thought. This is a character that is too sensitive for the “real” world and yet, perhaps it is his innocence that is dying away as he emotionally hardens into adulthood. “I always cry at endings,” he laments towards the song’s conclusion. But the ending of what? Perhaps it’s the end of his innocence or the end an affair; Murdoch’s not telling. But it was just the beginning for Belle & Sebastian. – David Harris
“Lazy Line Painter Jane” from Lazy Liner Painter EP (1997)
“Lazy Line Painter Jane,” the title track of Belle & Sebastian’s second EP, caught the band at something of an impasse. Released in 1997, just after their acclaimed sophomore album If You’re Feeling Sinister, long after the school project that eventually became their debut Tigermilk, but still short of the stylistic shift that would be apparent in the next year’s The Boy with the Arab Strap. “Lazy Line Painter Jane” is fittingly somewhat out of place for the band at the time, at least sonically. Their earliest efforts were earnest and distant kitchen sink stories (albeit skewed ones); their signature sound was the quiet, spare tones of “The State I Am In” and lead singer/bandleader Stuart Murdoch’s hesitant, shy voice. Their second EP, while keeping the description and biography that’s always been Belle & Sebastian’s strength, starts things off with a bang. Most of their early songs had been Murdoch’s open mic demonstrations before the formation of the band, but there’s no way that “Lazy Line Painter Jane” could have been played (or recorded) as anything other than what it is.
Dominated by a shimmering, heavenly organ (the song was fittingly recorded in a church hall- The Arcade Fire must have taken notes), “Lazy Line Painter Jane” combines surf-rock guitars so full of reverb that they sound like echoes of themselves and the vocal power of Murdoch and duet partner Monica Queen to glorious effect. Queen, herself the lead singer for the indie group Thrum, has a voice so entirely unlike Murdoch’s that it could never work in theory; Belle & Sebastian singer’s near-whisper should be drowned out by her throaty, soaring vocals. Instead, by some strange chemistry, they perfectly complement one another, Murdoch’s eternally quiet ramblings along Queen’s boisterous affirmations.
While “Lazy Line Painter Jane” may be musically dissimilar from most of their early work (possibly only “Judy and the Dream of Horses” comes close to it in sheer joyous volume), the vague story it tells is anything but. Like so many of their songs, it suggests a young girl in go nowhere life, “Dreaming of anything/ Dreaming of the time when you are free from all the trouble you’re in.” The recurring themes of freedom and shame are always twinned in Murdoch’s oeuvre, with the worry of “a dose of thrush” set along the triumphant notion that the title character “will have a boy tonight.” But of course, it could never be that easy with Belle and Sebastian to end a song with a simple promise- instead, we’re left the sad and peculiar line “And you hope that she will see.” – Nathan Kamal
“The Boy With the Arab Strap” from The Boy With the Arab Strap (1998)
The Boy with the Arab Strap was the Glasgow band’s third album, although for all intents and purposes it was their second, as few had heard their limited release debut Tigermilk at the time. At that early point in their career, Belle & Sebastian were a bit of a mystery: they rarely did press, they didn’t appear on their album covers and they toured infrequently and even then were just as likely to play churches as clubs. This gave the band a shared secret quality to those who discovered them and then were quick to pass them on to friends. At a time when mainstream music was especially stupid and loud, they were like a warm bath.
The title track is an indication of the band’s more upbeat side and move towards cheerier, but not cheesier, pop- proof they weren’t always as mopey or twee as some made them out to be. Even when the playing was a little amateurish, they always had classic melodies and incisive, often funny songwriting. With its hip-swaying beat, driving rhythm, bright piano and handclaps, “The Boy with the Arab Strap” finds the band out of their bedrooms and out in the sunny streets. Stuart Murdoch’s quiet, somewhat uninflected singing sometimes overshadows his observant, character-driven songs and this is full of almost cinematic details: riding a bus, prison food, a cute waitress, an Asian cab driver and his “racist clientele” and a protagonist prone to tongue-in-cheek statements like “Colour my life with the chaos of trouble/ Cause anything’s better than posh isolation.” With its riding around the city momentum and infectious energy, this is the song to play for people who think of B&S as bedsitting cry babies. It’s funny and a little dirty, something that is often overlooked in their music, featuring, aside from the sexual device of the title, the line “You’re constantly updating your hit parade of your ten biggest wanks.” It’s a great song that set their story-like songs to more robust music and pointed the way forward for the band. – Lukas Sherman
“I Fought in a War” from Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (2000)
The fourth Belle & Sebastian album finds lead singer/songwriter Stuart Murdoch stepping back from center stage, and sharing the spotlight with the rest the members. Casual fans of Belle & Sebastian do not seem to have enjoyed the results though. Despite being the first Belle & Sebastian album to hit the UK Top 10, Fold Your Hands Child You Walk Like A Peasant, has since generally been viewed as the least well-received of the group’s albums. While few Belle & Sebastian fans have the heart to call contributions by Stevie Jackson and the others inferior, many shyly prefer to argue instead that the rest of the album cannot live up to expectations set up by the lead-off track “I Fought In A War.”
“I Fought In A War” is the kind of epic ballad that Stuart Murdoch had been building towards with earlier songs like “It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career.” In the past Stuart David’s bass gave Murdoch’s songs a certain upbeat character, and it was partly the juxtaposition of Murdoch’s moody lyrics and David’s bouncing bassline that earned Belle & Sebastian their legions of fans. David is noticeably silent here and Murdoch is allowed to start, almost whispering “I fought in a war and I left my friends behind me.” A sparse guitar strumming slowly builds a level of somberness hitherto only hinted at, before being joined in by a harpsichord and strings, both new elements for Belle & Sebastian.
The song delves deep into the European folk traditions of the Napoleonic and Crimean Wars with stories of brothers and cousins facing each other on opposing sides of the battlefield. Numbness dominates Murdoch’s protagonist as he says, “It wasn’t very long/ before I would stand with another boy in front of me/ and a corpse that just fell into me.” The haunting heartache that Murdoch evokes for the lover left “making shells back home” is universal to all conflicts, as is the suspicion that she has already moved on, and the necessary delusion that “it won’t hurt to think of you as if you’re waiting for/ This letter to arrive.”
As Belle & Sebastian would go on to eschew such intimate and haunting music in favor of a far grander retropop sound under the auspices of producer Trevor Horn, “I Fought In A War” is one of the last flowerings of the band’s early style. – Sean Marchetto
“I’m Waking Up to Us” from I’m Waking Up to Us 12″(2001)
Much has been speculated about which Belle & Sebastian songs are about the ruined relationship between Stuart Murdoch and Isobel Campbell, the former romance as close as most Belle and Sebastian get to obsessing over celebrity gossip. “I’m Waking Up To Us” would be a great song regardless of its background, but the possibility that the song’s acidic take on love is based on the disintegration of the Campbell/Murdoch partnership adds another level, grafting new meanings to the already loaded words.
The focus of “I’m Waking Up To Us,” like so many other Belle and Sebastian numbers, is a boy done wrong by a wicked woman, the femme fatale in this case being particularly megalomaniacal, the boy sending her off with the wonderfully bitter line “you like yourself and you like/ Men to kiss your arse/ Expensive clothes” before asking her to just “please stop me there.” The protagonist just needs support, “someone to take some joy in something I do” rather than a self-centered princess, but nonetheless he can’t stop himself from thinking “she was the one love of my life.”
It’s the duality of this conflict that makes the song succeed, the awareness of its protagonist that even as he wants nothing more to do with her he can’t shake thoughts of her from dominating him. With its “Be My Baby”-cribbing rhythm and lush backing vocals, “I’m Waking Up To Us” is lyrically and musically rooted in the past, a simple old fashioned pop song with a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor to keep it from becoming maudlin.
The girl may have “[grown] up and…left the rest of us,” looking for “circles of the brave where art defines their lives” but as is the case in so many of these songs, it’s for the best. Murdoch ends with a list of what there was to love about the girl before finally confessing that he’s “pretty much the same person” who “cannot keep the anger hidden anymore/ But lucky for [her], ]she’s] not around” to see that anger come to the surface. But fortunately we are. – Morgan Davis
“Storytelling” from Storytelling (2002)
Todd Solondz’s Storytelling is a regrettably incomplete film. An entire chapter (“Autobiography”) featuring James Van Der Beek as a gay football player was deleted from the film, resulting in a movie about storytelling with only two acts. Also, Solondz deemed Belle & Sebastian’s soundtrack inappropriate for the film, so most of their work was left on the cutting room floor only to be released as a standalone, oft-ignored album by the Scottish popsters, complete with sound clips from the movie for fans to uncheck on iTunes.
Belle & Sebastian’s eponymous contribution to the film is the most characteristically Belle & Sebastian on the soundtrack — a bouncy piano pop song with quirky lyrics, this time about the act of creating fiction. Like the characters in Solondz’s film, “Storytelling” chides the writer (If you’re a storyteller you might think you’re without responsibility), addressing the kinks and hang-ups that drive a writer to write the things he or she writes (Are you sick?/ Are you crippled? Insane?/ Expressing the desires that daren’t speak their name?). It’s a hilarious message for such a mean, darkly comic film as Storytelling, where the desire to tell a story ruins entire lives.
The biggest surprise of “Storytelling”–and this is going to seem very harsh–is its superlative quality despite vocal duties by Isobel Campbell and Stevie Jackson — nothing against the two, who have delivered essential tracks during their time in the band, but their contributions always tended to be the weaker tracks of earlier albums, paling in comparison to Stuart Murdoch’s idiosyncratic songwriting. Perhaps it’s the focus of writing for a soundtrack or that it doesn’t sound like someone’s solo track muscled into a group effort.– Danny Djeljosevic
“I’m a Cuckoo” from Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003)
Despite having worked consistently since Tigermilk, Dear Catastrophe Waitress is a comeback album for Belle & Sebastian. Having cultivated a sound (clever, lo-fi folk for Morrissey lovers) with their first two acclaimed records, the gang seemed content repeating that formula for subsequent albums with varying degrees of success. Then came 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress, a polished effort with ambitiously sweeping instrumentation (beyond just the paltry horn and strings from earlier albums) that shows us a newly energized Belle & Sebastian, as if to nullify the dig from High Fidelity (“I just want something I can ignore!”).
“I’m a Cuckoo” is the closest Stuart Murdoch and company get to rock ‘n’ roll until The Life Pursuit — a bit of upbeat radio-friendly pop (just not this era’s radio)–a sunnier version of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys are Back in Town”–with lyrics that are as melancholy (I’m wondering how things could have been) as they are funny (You were dressed like a punk/ But are too young to remember).
The song is seemingly about the departure of Isobel Campbell, with regretful lyrics like (“We lost a singer to her clothes” and “I was the boss of you/ And I loved you, you know I loved you“). The chorus is a particular standout, an ironic list of alternatives to breakup pain:
I’d rather be in Tokyo
I’d rather listen to Thin Lizzy-O
And watch The Sunday Gang in Harajuku
There’s something wrong with me, I’m a cuckoo}
“I’m a Cuckoo” could have been a slow, sad, self-flagellating bore, but Stuart Murdoch and company achieve a much harder feat: an irresistibly sunny pop song about breakups. Because, as Murdoch sings, “breaking off is misery.” – Danny Djeljosevic
“Your Cover’s Blown” from Books EP (2004)
At the time of its release, Books and, specifically, its centerpiece “Your Cover’s Blown” wasn’t just unlike anything Belle & Sebastian had done before- it was unlike anything anyone could possibly imagine the group doing. But in hindsight, it shouldn’t have seemed too extraordinary for Belle & Sebastian to invent themselves as a Philly soul outfit since the group’s greatest strength has always been the way the band immerses itself in the world and mood of the characters Stuart Murdoch and company craft. Even if that world and mood is so at odds with the traditional perception of what type of music Belle & Sebastian makes.
“Your Cover’s Blown” now stands as perhaps Belle and Sebastian’s finest song, a complicated, well-structured dance number about a downtrodden boy chasing a girl who’s nothing but trouble, “a strange aberration/ In this land of potted plants/ And boxlike houses” standing out in a place where the other girls are “like mouses.”
Think of the disco tropes and falsetto backing voices not as a stylistic diversion but form following function, Murdoch as the boy out of his element in the realm of sleaze, style and sex, making a “bold change of tact” that “will fade out with the summer” when the girl leaves. The anxiety builds to a climax when the girl’s wicked ways hit him full force, the band unleashing a more straightforward rock bridge, all harshly strummed chords and aggressive rhythms.
The boy doesn’t get the girl in the end, but it’s for the best, our protagonist urging her to “leave the boy home” and “cancel all operations” even as he demands she tell her “friends there’s more to [her] than this.” As the narrative closes, the band has successfully merged the seemingly alien disco sound of the beginning with a more obvious Belle & Sebastian-style build, the vocals now sweetly cooing as Murdoch describes the messy ending, the guitars jangly rather than glassy, but the rhythm section still as unabashedly funky as ever until it all melts away to just the organ and Murdoch’s familiar croon. – Morgan Davis
“For the Price of a Cup of Tea” from The Life Pursuit (2006)
The Life Pursuit and Midnite Vultures share a producer, and it shows: in both, culty mid-career artists set aside the home-recording aesthetic upon which they made their names and get, for the lack of a better word, groovy; even sexy. The strutting, head-bobbing backing track of “For The Price Of A Cup Of Tea” is all squelchy bass and sugary keyboards; sweet background choirs and octave-doubled AM Gold falsetto. The lyric is what a bandmate of mine calls a “scumbag song” — a slightly sleazy, if effective, pickup rap (“You can use my stereo“); a greased-hair local hitting on a young girl traveling alone with a layover at a coffee shop in a strange town. Stuart Murdoch allows himself a Steven Tyler-worthy dirty joke (“For the price of a cup of tea/ You’d get seven inches“), and there’s a rather neat songwriting trick: two distinct voices; one Murdoch’s familiar shaky but versatile tenor takes the first-person role of the local rake, while a falsetto Greek chorus narrates the third-person backstory of the girl.
Many songwriters seem to be only capable of writing about one very particular kind of love interest, and Murdoch is no exception: every female character in his songs could be the same one, a willowy, vulnerable art student lost in a baggy winter coat; bookish, lonely and defiant. His upcoming musical God Help The Girl, to judge by the soundtrack album (released, counterintuitively, ahead of the production itself), seems to be held together by an identical character more than a particular plot. But like Morrissey, he attracts fans who see themselves in his protagonists, and the intensity of their adoration is correlative to his attention to the small details of their clothing — the fringe on the winter coat, the aloof look to mask insecurity in a strange place — and how they present themselves in small ways to an imagined audience. And he, in return, gives small affirmations of empathy: “Be easy on the kid.”
In any sharp observer, though, hides a ruthless judge; and Murdoch’s loverman and sensitive guy mesh uneasily. It’s no accident that many people heard Steely Dan in The Life Pursuit: A musician 10 years into his career rarely grows less cynical, nor does he shun the pleasures of the studio; and at the nexus of pop music for its own pure pleasure and a raised eyebrow at humanity lies both the Fagen catalogue and Murdoch’s fork in the road: one foot in his tea-and-sweater past and one in pop-craft future. – Franz Nicolay
Belle and Sebastian took a surprising stylistic turn to dance music with their ninth studio album. Its lead track doesn’t have the warm synthesizers, dance beats or infectious choruses that define the record, with songs like “Enter Sylvia Plath” drawing the most attention for their shockingly conventional pop sound. But “Nobody’s Empire” is correctly recognized as the heart of the album, the missing link between the band’s signature relaxed folk and retro dance music. One of album tracks that most comfortably fits within Belle and Sebastian’s legacy, it’s a subtle advancement of the twee pop sound on which they built their career, making it a highlight for both the album and for the latter half of their discography.
With a graceful piano melody and a steady kick drum rhythm, “Nobody’s Empire” invites listeners into the album on an elegant wave of traditional Belle and Sebastian sounds. Stuart Murdoch’s familiar croon over the upbeat instrumentation ensures a smooth, even transition into the radical dance-pop that “The Party Line” kicks off a few songs later. “Nobody’s Empire” is the sound of If You’re Feeling Sinister, matured and evolved. Instead of a refined folk arrangement, the song features a full band with dynamic sonics; instead of a rambling composition, the song is tight and controlled. It ends with a subtle build-up with a reprise of the piano melody over disco hi-hat rhythms and background “oohs” and “aahs” that signal the fresh synthpop style that courses through the rest of the album. It’s probably not what fans imagined the band sounding like twenty years down the line, but it’s as nuanced, joyous and literate as anything in their back catalog, proof that Belle and Sebastian can evolve and stay true to their legacy. – Colin Fitzgerald