With album number nine appearing this week and the agonising wait for their Sound City headline slot ever shortening, Getintothis’ Patrick Clarke and Matthew Wood pick ten of the best from the superlative Belle & Sebastian.
When the newly relocated Sound City announced iconic Scottish poppers Belle & Sebastian as the first headliner for this year’s bash, it’s fair to say that the North West lost its collective shit, and noticeably more so than when well-renowned live stalwarts The Flaming Lips were similarly revealed.
It’s testament to a cult adoration that’s followed Stuart Murdoch‘s collective ever since their lo-fi debut from the depths of arty Glasgow with 1996’s Tigermilk. Within months the record’s 1000 vinyl pressings were wolfed up by an entranced British public, and by the time the perhaps even more stellar If You’re Feeling Sinister appeared later that same year they were already entrenched in the hearts of the defiantly sensitive.
Along with The Boy With the Arab Strap, their third outing, this initial trilogy of classics is one that the band could never quite surpass in terms of sheer artistic quality, yet the production line of triumphs has never really faltered, their back-catalogue peppered with undisputed classics.
This month’s release of album number nine, Girl’s in Peacetime Want to Dance, proves there’s to be no sign of blunting as they hurtle towards the end of a decade, and with their live return this May set to once again reseal their immortal relevance, it seems about time we take a step back to pick ten of the best from one of Britain’s most crucial of bands.
1. The State I am in from Tigermilk (1996)
The song that starts the love affair, Murdoch’s crisp vocal quivers like the brief moment between the striking and the lighting of a match, before igniting our hearts with this spiritual tale. It would be wrong to start anywhere else, timid guitar strums met with a twinkling riff that welcomes you into the obscurely enchanting world of Belle & Sebastian.
2. The Boy with the Arab Strap from The Boy with the Arab Strap (1998)
Probably the most quintessential distillation of everything that makes the band so great, the title track from 1998’s third album skips forward with an affably bashful limp, beautiful inflections of organs, flutes and brass complementing a vintage Murdoch yarn of prisons and perversions.
Allegedly an homage to Arab Strap frontman Aidan Moffat, their fellow Scots were reportedly less than pleased by the title, claiming it scuppered their own artistic integrity. Spoilsports.
3. Like Dylan in the Movies from If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996)
‘Take a tip from me, don’t go through the park when you’re on your own’, a simple message from Murdoch grounded in his relentless love for the subject. The infectious bass line, unforgettable Bob Dylan inspired chorus and surging string accompaniment makes for a great song to walk home to… but don’t go on your own… and preferably not through a park.
4. Funny Little Frog from The Life Pursuit (2006)
As Belle & Sebastian hit the new millennium, glossier production and a wryer, more mature lyrical style from their leader saw a change come over the group, and of the outpouring of slick pop that the mid-noughties saw from the band, Funny Little Frog is perhaps the most complete. Forthright bass, measured brass and a tumbling weave of melody is the order of the day in this particularly sardonic piece of pop perfection.
5. Piazza New York Catcher from Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003)
While consisting of just five chords on an acoustic guitar, ‘Piazza New York Catcher’ exhibits the extent of Murdoch’s genius. Six verses of pure poetry transport you from hotel rooms and cathedrals, to the baseball field and the Willie May Statue in San Francisco. Murdoch’s lyrics are ones to ponder and interpret; have fun with this one.
6. Le Pastie de la Bourgeoisie from 3… 6… 9 Seconds of Light EP (1997)
This extraordinary lo-fi gem from the heart of the band’s initial golden run of recordings is one of the finest of the band’s deep cuts. One in the eye for those detractors keen to proclaim the group a group of poncey wimps, it’s a driven, pacey three minutes that’s both defiantly pretentious and musically invigorating, inflected with an inherent grit that’s finally bubbled to the surface.
7. She’s Losing It from Tigermilk (1996)
An early example of archetypal Belle & Sebastian: a sinister, unnerving topic disguised by an expertly chiseled pop song. Themes of sexuality and insanity lie at the heart of Murdoch’s lyrics, while the rest of the band juxtapose this with a delightfully catchy ditty that almost serves as an ode to madness.
8. Seeing Other People from If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996)
The track that sees Murdoch tackling his common themes of sexual timidity and confusion at his most direct, Seeing Other People sees Belle & Sebastian‘s heart most firmly on their sleeves as a beguiling lyric is met by a crystalline loop of violin and piano.
9. I Want the World to Stop from Write About Love (2010)
A powerful, polished pop classic that demands a time machine and a makeshift dance floor in the centre of a 1980s house party. Elements of new wave combined with a bursting brass section and Murdoch’s resounding requests means this track will be lodged neatly in your head for a good while.
10. Allie from Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance (2015)
As if to cement the fact that they’ll never drift into rehashed grabs at a slipping relevance like so many of their contemporaries, the most recent full-length outing from the six-piece is perhaps their most unusual to date – an audacious juxtaposition of disco bangers and jazzy, baroque-pop stompers that take in their finest ever cornucopia of textures.
Though it’s divided opinion over the course of the entire LP, tunes like the confident swoon of album track Allie are enough to prove they’ve still got acres to give, affirmation if it was ever needed less that this May can’t come soon enough.