BELLE AND SEBASTIAN: THE BOY WITH THE ARAB STRAP (1998)
1) It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career; 2) Sleep The Clock Around; 3) Is It Wicked Not To Care?; 4) Ease Your Feet In The Sea; 5) A Summer Wasting; 6) Seymour Stein; 7) A Space Boy Dream; 8) Dirty Dream Number Two; 9) The Boy With The Arab Strap; 10) Chickfactor; 11) Simple Things; 12) The Rollercoaster Ride.
The biggest change here is that our «Sebastian» has finally promoted cellist Isobel Campbell to the official status of «Belle» — not only does she sing more background vocals here than ever before, she even gets a lead one (ʽIs It Wicked Not To Care?ʼ), and, although her frail girlish singing is nowhere near unique in the huge world of broken indie hearts, it still provides a perfect counterpart for Murdoch's tales of tender sorrow. Basically, this means that the «wimpiness quotient» has been raised one more level, so if you felt even a little uncomfortable about flinging the heartgates wide open for Feeling Sinister, you would be well advised to steer clear of the sequel, as it is even more of a celebration of universal sadness-lite.
The music largely remains the same, a healthy, but generally unimpressive mix of nick-drakisms, paul-simonisms, and an occasional ray-daviesism or two, with hardly a single particularly memorable guitar, cello, or organ line despite those three instruments being present on almost every track. Volume levels are equally steady, although ʽDirty Dream Number Twoʼ unexpectedly kicks in with a firm punch midway through — lively drums, staccato electric chords, soaring rather than crawling strings, anthemic brass, almost as if a Phil Spector had surreptitiously replaced Tony Doogan in the producer chair for a bit. But that's just one song, most likely stuck in the middle with the aim of waking you up for the second half in case your nervous system happened to be firmly lulled by the first seven tunes.
Meanwhile, Murdoch's lyrics are getting more and more sophisticated: from masochistic self-analysis he now ventures forward into painting abstractionist pictures of various real and imaginary members of Glasgow society, all of them eventually reduced to a single denominator at the end of the show: "Hey people, looking out the window at the city below / Hey people, looking out the window, you'll be gone tomorrow" (ʽThe Rollercoaster Rideʼ). The texts are not at all hateful, and the singing is always pretty, but there really is a lot of misanthropy here — leave it to the shushed, shunned, bullied «not-like-everybody-else» kid to be really preoccupied with the vanity and the uselessness and the transience of it all. The only reason why the kid does not commit or even propagate suicide is because it's just as vain and useless as everything else.
ʽIt Could Have Been A Brilliant Careerʼ greets us with the cheery accappella line "he had a stroke at the age of 24", as Murdoch launches into a strange tale of phoney artists and fake identities. ʽSleep The Clock Aroundʼ introduces quasi-psychedelic «electronic chimes» — I have no idea what for, maybe to stress the lack of importance of one's personal hustle-bustle in the face of eternity or something like that: in any case, the basic message of the song is "look at yourself, you're not much use to anyone". ʽEase Your Feet In The Seaʼ is a perfect story of a romance from which the romancer derives no pleasure whatsoever — there ain't no «love» here as such, only "trouble that we've used to know" which "will stay with us till we get old, will stay with us till somebody decides to go". (This is where one is usually supposed to make jokes about 30-year old virgins, but I couldn't think of a good one, and bad jokes about virgins tend to be really bad). And it goes on like that until the very end.
The only weird thing here that deserves further comment is the album's title — first and foremost, a reference to Arab Strap, Murdoch's Scottish competition led by Aidan Moffat, a band that had all the atmospherics and depression of Belle & Sebastian without their pop sensibilities, but then also, of course, a figurative reference to the sexual device after which that band was named. The song itself is Murdoch at his «Kinksiest», engineering the album's most upbeat, quasi-martial melody and cramming in the largest amount of social comment, not forgetting even the Asian minicab driver "with his racist clientele", but he keeps coming back, over and over again, to the «arab strap» idea (rumor has it that Moffat felt quite uncomfortable about the song, as one of its interpretations is that the protagonist actually needs an arab strap to... oh, never mind). In any case, it is one of those enigmas that is just about equally likely to contain a whole lot of deep sense or not to have any sense at all. Maybe it's just one of those Freudian things that manifest themselves so frequently in artistic work done by shushed, bullied, and reclusive kids.
Anyway, just like the first two albums, The Boy With The Arab Strap is very pleasant listening, but falls short on great melodies and is much better appreciated as just another radiation outburst of Murdoch's sensitive-sensible personality. Had it leaned just a tad more in the «whiny» direction, I would have hated it, but, fortunately, Murdoch still keeps light on his feet and refuses to take those troubles too seriously — the message is not just a boring «life sucks», but rather a more philosophical «life sucks, but so what? you don't want to say you expected something else, did you? just relax and enjoy all the sucking». Come to think of it, maybe that's what the «arab strap» is an allegory of, in the end. A mild thumbs up overall, but only for those who love the very idea of a «whole being larger than the sum of its parts», because, well, the «parts» are really not all that impressive — in particular, Murdoch's steadfast refusal to grow as a musician begins to get a little irritating; it is exactly this attitude that breeds hundreds of little Conor Obersts all around the world and, ultimately, might spell out a death sentence for art as we know it.
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