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Happy birthday Stuart Murdoch!

I’m a few years too young to have heard Dog on Wheels, Belle & Sebastian’s first EP, when it was first released. My long love affair began rather with Storytelling, which was released in June the summer before I went into high school as a freshman. To give you an idea, my favorite songs of the year before were Eve 6’s “Inside Out,” K-Ci & Jojo’s “Crazy,” and Harvey Dangerfield’s “Flagpole Sitta.” Also the entire Moulin Rouge soundtrack. Get the idea?

When I heard first Belle & Sebastian, I wasn’t immediately intrigued: “Night walk” put me to sleep, and the only songs I really liked off the album were “Storytelling” and “Big John Shaft.” Nowadays, it’s “Big John Shaft” I think about. It was Stuart Murdoch’s voice that caught me – he doesn’t really enunciate, but every word he says is crisp. Neither can he be pegged as a tenor or a bass on first listen. Likewise, when he’s singing, he never sounds like he’s really making an effort at it. Really, none of those things would have mattered for “Big John Shaft,” except the entire feeling of this song is unhappy apathy. The simplistic guitar part, the chimes, & the piano all hang around in the background, making occasional slight intrusions into your conscious listening to the song. When the trumpet arrives in the break, it’s a ray of sunshine into a song about mediocracy. I was caught by the song, if not by the album, and started digging into older albums.

Belle & Sebastian – Big John Shaft
Buy Storytelling on eMusic

I decided to go from the beginning, with Tigermilk. I don’t have as much to say about specific songs – the entire album caught me. What is amazing about the album is how how many great songs were there from the beginning: “She’s Losing It,” “The State I Am In,” “I Don’t Love Anyone,” “You’re Just A Baby,” “Mary Jo,” “Electronic Renaissance,” and my personal favorite, “My Wandering Days Are Over” – basically, the entire album.
But it was the feeling of being lost that truly captured me. In “The State I Am In,” there’s the line, “I gave myself to God / There was a pregnant pause before he said, ‘OK’,” and the chorus, “I gave myself to sin again / and then to providence / and now, I’ve been there and back again / the state that I am in.” “She’s Losing It” is about people who have been displaced from society, “Mary Jo” is about a lonely girl. Even “You’re Just A Baby” contains some cynicism masked behind the obvious cuteness of the song with lines like “Kiss me on the cheek before you know what’s cool.”

The focus on children is unique – we think about adults, young and old, as lost in their existential unhappiness, but Stuart Murdoch through Belle and Sebastian takes that idea and applies it to children in the form of cute pop, creating a genre all his own. In a 2003 interview, Stuart rejected the notion of “Twee pop,” saying that the band just wanted to make pretty music. Oh, how they succeeded.

I saved the best for last: “My Wandering Days Are Over.” The essential story, beyond the spooky witch in the sexy dress, the disenchanted pony, and the circus boy, is about someone who has decided to settle down and finds himself more lost than ever.

(I'm sorry these links were screwed up earlier)
Belle and Sebastian – The State I Am In
Belle and Sebastian – My Wandering Days Are Over
Buy Tigermilk on eMusic

I moved on to If You’re Feeling Sinister, which became my official favorite album (I was 14, what can you expect?) until the release of Dear Catastrophe Waitress. Every track on If You’re Feeling Sinister was at least as good as the best track from Tigermilk, and better. With If You’re Feeling Sinister, I had my first experience of wanting to hear every single track of an album all the time – no skipping tracks I didn’t like as much.

As is probably apparent from my rankings, the first track on If You’re Feeling Sinister, “The Stars of Track and Field,” is still my favorite Belle & Sebastian track. I can’t quite put my finger on why. Potentially, there’s lines like “Could I write a piece about you now that you’ve made it?” and then, in the next verse, “Could I write a requiem for you when you’re dead?” There’s the way it builds. I don’t know. I love it anyway.

I’m beginning to get lazy with writing this post, so I’ll go through songs in If You’re Feeling Sinister this way – by stating my favorite features of each song (that isn’t “the Stars of Track and Field”).
SEEING OTHER PEOPLE – the piano part, the way Stuart pronounces doin’ in the chorus that makes it obvious that he doesn’t believe what he’s saying either
ME AND THE MAJOR – the harmonica!, the ending: “falling falling falling falling….”
LIKE DYLAN IN THE MOVIES – the melody between Stuart and Stevie in the chorus and in the last verse, the line “Pure easy listening, settle down” (don’t ask me why)
THE FOX IN THE SNOW – THE ENTIRE FREAKING SONG, the fact that Stevie can’t hit the note on “Starvin’” and “Kills You,” etc. I heart the guitar part too.
GET ME AWAY FROM HERE, I'M DYING – the beginning, “Oh, get my 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 line “think of it this way / you could either be successful or be us” Actually, this one’s another case of THE ENTIRE SONG
IF YOU'RE FEELING SINISTER – the chorus: “If you’re feeling sinister / go off and see a minister / he’ll try in vain to take away the pain of being a hopeless unbeliever,” the sounds of kids playing throughout the song.
MAYFLY – the sadness of the song: both people involved in the song love people who just aren’t there, the way the song almost ends (too soon) after “You know it’s a crying shame”
THE BOY DONE ME WRONG AGAIN – Stevie singing “the boy done wrong again,” the line “All I wanted was to sing the saddest song / And if you would sing along I will be happy now”
Judy and the Dream of Horses – the way the trumpet comes in after the second verse and the song suddenly makes me want to dance. Also (I can’t help it), “You will fall asleep with ants in your pants”

Belle and Sebastian - The Stars of Track and Field
Belle and Sebastian - Me and the Major (one seriously underappreciated track)
Buy If You're Feeling Sinister on eMusic

After listening to If You’re Feeling Sinister until I knew it by heart, I looked for another album to move onto and found….not a lot. I tried The Boy With the Arab Strap – didn’t really like it. Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant? - Not that either. I listened to EP’s: Jonathan David, I’m Waking Up To Us, This is Just A Modern Rock Song, (I do like 3…6…9… Seconds of Light, but it’s just one EP, and that’s not as new for as long as an LP), Legal Man….and they couldn’t hold my attention. I moved on. I found other albums…an LP called The Photo Album by “Death Cab For Cutie?” (who names their band that, really?), Oh, Inverted World by The Shins, Sha Sha by Ben Kweller, Castaways and Cutouts by the Decemberists, the Creek Drank the Cradle by Iron and Wine, *cough* The Places *cough* you have come to fear *cough* the most by *cough* Dashboard *cough* Confessional *cough* (my throat’s cleared now), Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco, and more…….
Like going to visit an old friend, occasionally I would put in a Belle & Sebastian album, usually when I’d had a rough day. And Stuart would sing to me.

Well, you know the rest of the story (also, I'm getting a little tired of writing). In 2003 Dear Catastrophe Waitress made critics (and me) happy. And now there’s 2006’s The Life Pursuit - my feelings for it are mixed.
And then there’s old Belle and Sebastian……….

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