Belle and Sebastian
The BBC Sessions
Belle and Sebastian’s latest release, The BBC Sessions, is a collection of, that’s right, BBC sessions culled from various radio performances from 1996-2001. Consisting of songs recorded for Mark Radcliffe, Steve Lamacq, and Saint John Peel, it’s a solid but oftentimes bland and uninspiring release. Initial copies (for the cool kids, I suppose) also include a bonus disc of a 2001 Christmas concert from Belfast.
Though a couple of the songs included do venture away their album counterparts, the release’s biggest drawback is that the majority of songs included are nearly identical to the studio versions, both lyrically and musically. In fact, anyone except the most dedicated and hardcore Belle and Sebastian fans would likely be hard pressed to easily distinguish these radio versions from those released on the band’s studio albums.
Of course, most of the songs are good enough to allow the listener to occasionally look past this problem. Opening track “The State I Am In” is a solid start, if only for classic, despicable and selfishly hilarious lines like “My brother had confessed he was gay / It took the heat off me for a while” and “I was moved to kick the crutches from my crippled friend.” “Like Dylan In the Movies,” “Judy and the Dream of Horses,” and “The Stars of Track and Field” – three songs from the band’s most successful and obscenely worshiped album, If You’re Feeling Sinister -follow, but are also damn near carbon copies of the versions from that indie object of reverence. Singer Stuart Murdoch’s vocals and the band’s arrangements are a bit like staring at your twin brother: The differences are hard to find without uncomfortably close scrutiny. Though I’m certainly not asking for any type of techno-thrash-pop interpretation of the songs, the performances come across as too staid and predictable.
One of the big attractions for the band’s most dedicated fans here is the inclusion of four oft-bootlegged tracks recorded for Peel in 2001, with this release marking the first time these songs have been officially available. Each of these songs shows Belle and Sebastian evolving beyond their “signature” sound, with uneven and mixed results. “Shoot the Sexual Athlete” is kinda funky in a meek way, and also contains enough musical references to allow the listener to at least momentarily geek out. “The Magic of a Kind Word” is incredibly poppy and plays like a pastiche of bubblegum pop songs, or, perversely, something from The Brady Bunch or The Partridge Family. The final two previously unreleased songs, “Nothing In the Silence” and “(My Girl’s Got) Miraculous Technique,” are tedious and somewhat plodding.
This release is perhaps best left for the wee-bit twee completists out there. Though most of the song choices are solid (the less said about the saccharine, overly-nasal, so-tender-it-makes-James-Taylor-sound-like-a-badass “Seymour Stein” the better), this release isn’t a landmark entry in Belle and Sebastian’s catalog. Its primary shortcoming is that the quality of the songs isn’t enough to shake the listener’s from feeling that this road’s been stomped before, and with much better flow and cohesiveness, on the band’s studio releases. Of course there’s a fine line between a band playing to its strengths by maintaining its style and that band butchering its songs in the name of experimentation and artistic growth. Still, The BBC Sessions relies too heavily on playing it safe; the end result is a collection of songs performed with very little sense of surprise or adventure.
by Eric Whelchel