Wednesday, September 26, 2007

[061] If You're Feeling Sinister

Album: If You’re Feeling Sinister
Artist: Belle and Sebastian
Release Date: November 1996
Label: Jeepster [UK], The Enclave [US]; reissued on Matador
Producers: Tony Doogan

"Nobody writes them like they used to,
So it may as well be me”
- from “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying”

In the film version of Nick Hornby’s classic music-obsessive novel High Fidelity, Jack Black’s Barry famously derides a Belle and Sebastian ballad as “some old sad bastard music”, and this has since painted the band in a bad light for the uninitiated, especially in America where, when the band was hitting its stride, us yanks were being inundated with Rap-Metal. Like The Smiths before them, Belle and Sebastian are wrongly regarded as morose, when in fact they’re actually pretty lively with a sharp sense of humor. They're not going to rock you - Belle and Sebastian’s version of Rock & Roll is the same as The Beatles’ when they were playing Skiffle. In fact the band’s music is far more represented by Todd Louiso’s portrayal of Dick and his innocent approach to his new budding relationship with Anna Moss, than by his musical taste. Hey, B&S may not jump out of your speakers, cuz they are restrained to be sure, but they are far from crying in their teas and lagers.

That’s not to say that their predecessors didn’t work at a relative whisper in the spectrum of Rock history, mostly because the music could be too timid to make itself known. Belle and Sebastian have come to represent the important mid-point in the trajectory of what is called “Indie Pop” or “Twee Pop”; if you don’t want to put a label on it, it’s that pasty kid on your block who stays in his bedroom playing his guitar. The roots of Indie Pop are in the less agressive end of UK Punk, bands like The Undertones, Television Personalities, and the Buzzcocks, as well as the early 80’s roster of Postcard Records bands like Orange Juice. It grew with the release of the C86 cassette sampler included with NME magazine. C86 became a tag for any band with fey vocals over jangly Byrds guitars, though the bands on the sampler reject the idea of there being a cohesive scene. There was one however, half way around the world in both New Zealand, with Flying Nun Records, and in Olympia, WA. Calvin Johnson had formed Beat Happening, and started K Records to give a home to similar bands looking to recall the cutie innocence of childhood; he ended up changing the life of a kid named Kurt Cobain. Cobain just happened to be equally influenced by Hüsker Dü, and so the ear-splitting buzzsaw guitars won in the end, and the Seattle sound smothered the Twee scene through the early 90’s.

Belle and Sebastian signaled a return of sorts, only when they came out, their sound was more accomplished and mature. Like any great band, they wear their influences like badges, in this case on their cardigan or gold-button blazer, and their influences went further back than Punk, to the mid 60’s. Beyond the jangle of The Byrds, B&S pull from a variety of the lush Pop and Folk of the time; elements of Simon & Garfunkel, Burt Bacharach, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, a pinch of Bob Dylan, and pre-Ziggy David Bowie all get nods, but none more so that the prettiest moments of The Velvet Underground, especially their eponymous third album. Stuart Murdoch has maintained that he’s always been unhappy with the recording of the album, but I would say whatever those imperfections are, they allow If You’re Feeling Sinister to have its beloved timeless quality.

B&S singer/songwriter Stuart Murdoch calibrates the focus for If You’re Feeling Sinister on words right from the start. The cover features The Trial by Franz Kafka, some pretty heady stuff, and he begins “The Stars Of Track And Field” with just his voice and acoustic guitar, and a murmur: “Make a new cult every day to suit your affairs”. Murdoch’s voice is light but never too airy; he’s immediately charming, his quirky, lit-major storytelling and spot-on description of time away at University paint Sinister as the aural equivalent of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. This album is the triumph of the quiet ones, the picked-on come to take over the school. Sinister is the ultimate concept album on getting through high school and college. “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” is enhanced by a tender diary-entry lyric, the charging “Me And The Major” works to avoid an awkward relationship with an authority figure, and in “Seeing Other People”, Murdoch describes a young couple learning about love and sex for the first time, but from a delicate, completely androgynous perspective. The title track stands out though; beginning with the sounds of children on a playground, the gentle acoustic strum and elegant piano build to a gallop as Murdoch’s lyrics filter the uncertainty of religion in a modern world ("But if you are feeling sinister, go off and see a minister; chances are you'll probably feel better if you stayed and played with yourself") through the uncertainty of adolescence (“She was into S&M and Bible studies”). B&S end proceedings with “Judy And The Dream of Horses”, in which Murdoch lays out the band’s modus operandi and enduring themes; the story of a “teenage rebel” who “gave herself to books and learning”. The narrator offers a “kiss and whatever you want, but you will be disappointed”. He assures her that the “best looking boys are staying inside”, perhaps to make music that sounds like B&S, and he suggests Judy do the same – go home and write a song. Murdoch’s advice extends outward to the real world; Belle and Sebastian revived a musical subgenre thought to be dead and gave it a new blueprint which it lives on today. And there’s nothing depressing about that. In fact, it’s pretty unplifting.

01. “The Stars Of Track And Field”
02. “Seeing Other People”
03. “Me And The Major”
04. “Like Dylan In The Movies”
05. “The Fox In The Snow”
06. “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying”
07. “If You’re Feeling Sinister”
08. “Mayfly”
09. “The Boy Done Wrong Again”
10. “Judy And The Dream Of Horses”

"If You're Feeling Sinister" [live at the 2006 Lowlands Festival]

"Like Dylan In The Movies" [live for XFM]

- BONUS: "The Stars Of Track And Field" [live in San Francisco, 03.06]
- BONUS: "Judy And The Dream Of Horses" [live in L.A., 03.06]

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