BELLE AND SEBASTIAN: TIGERMILK (1996)
1) The State I Am In; 2) Expectations; 3) She's Losing It; 4) You're Just A Baby; 5) Electronic Renaissance; 6) I Could Be Dreaming; 7) We Rule The School; 8) My Wandering Days Are Over; 9) I Don't Love Anyone; 10) Mary Jo.
Of course, Stuart Murdoch is just the kind of «frail lonely indie kid» that gets regularly parodied by all the sarcastic wiseguys in the world. A little nerdy, a little sissy, sometimes bitter, sometimes tender, a champion of the little guy and of the underdog, and what could you expect from someone who spent seven years suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, and then served several more years as a caretaker for a church hall in his spare time? Here be the proverbial musical recluse who always takes brain over brawn, beauty over beast, and bells over balls — a position that has been profanated over and over again since the days of Nick Drake, who could at least justify it by also being a real musician (yes, knowing how to play your instrument better than your neighbor with just a few years of musical school behind him actually helps).
But it is also true that some of those sad indie kids have more credibility than others, and, fortunately, Murdoch falls within that category. If he and his music may occasionally fall prey to certain stereotypes, then, for the sake of justice, it should also be mentioned that they also break stereotypes — for instance, the stereotype that every rock band from Scotland should be fronted by a permanently drunk ex-coal miner with an iron throat, and that its music should be the perfect soundtrack to having a good barf at the local pub. Try as I might, I just cannot imagine anybody barfing to the sweet, sensitive sounds of Belle and Sebastian, a band that was, after all, named after a children's book and TV series.
Besides, Murdoch chooses a near-perfect attitude for his songs, one that goes back directly to the aforementioned Nick Drake and maybe even further back to Ray Davies — frailty and tenderness without either excessive sentimentality or excessive «see me suffer, see me suffocate» type of self-pity. It's all light, breezy, «twee» (as they say today) folk-pop that at its best — when the band falls upon a fortunate vocal or melodic hook — sounds charming, and at its worst — when they drift on the waves of style and attitude alone — still sounds nice. Acoustic or jangly electric guitars, occasional cellos, violins, and trumpets, pretty vocals, intelligent lyrics, everything with plenty of throwbacks to old-school pre-Hendrix Brit-pop, what's not to like?
Like most B&S albums, Tigermilk does suffer from its rather limited stylistics. There is fairly little on the record that is not already contained in its opening number, ʽThe State I Am Inʼ — if you are in a big hurry, the song pretty much tells you everything about Belle and Sebastian that you must know in order to check off that little square. Simple (accessible), acoustic (immediate), upbeat (unpretentious), tells an allegorical story that should not be taken too literally but is easily decodable figuratively — "I gave myself to sin / I gave myself to Providence / And I've been there and back again / The state that I am in". Internal conflict, personality disorder, adolescent angst, maturity crisis — for those who do not like these themes accompanied by barking vocals, chainsaw guitars and death-challenging volume levels.
As a «poet», Murdoch is certainly operating at a more advanced level than Ray Davies (who was fairly old-fashioned even by Sixties' standards himself), but that is more or less to be expected from an indie kid. As a melody writer, unfortunately, he does not even begin to come close: most of these songs float by like fluffy clouds — five listens into the record, only ʽShe's Losing Itʼ managed to cling on to a piece of my mind's driftwood (its bouncy chorus is the most «kiddie» element on the entire album, and I am afraid that must be exactly why it is so memorable), and, of course, ʽI Could Be Dreamingʼ — probably the album's true major highlight, with its tremolo effect on the electric guitar hook, its quasi-Theremin countermelody, and the odd Isobel Campell recital of «Rip Van Winkle» in the outro section.
But the songs still warrant repeated listens, because there is more to them than sheer melodic context, and I am willing to listen to Murdoch and his little under-the-bed performances. On very rare occasions, he cooks up completely unpredictable surprises — for instance, ʽElectronic Renaissanceʼ uses shitloads of synthesizers and drum machines to... express contempt and disgust for the digital clubland revolution that was taking place in the mid-Nineties, without mincing words: "Monochrome in the 1990's / You go disco and I'll go my way", and, sure enough, although they do sparingly use synthesizers on some of the other tracks, all of them are quite «monochrome» in comparison.
However, that is more or less the only straightforward piece of social criticism. Most of the time, Murdoch takes it out on himself — for instance, on ʽI Don't Love Anyoneʼ, which is probably the sweetest song about not loving anyone ever recorded: "if there's one thing that I learned when I was still a child it's to take a hiding", although the man is really so nice that he can't help adding a few disclaimers: "I don't love anyone... well, maybe my sister... maybe my baby brother too..." — doesn't he know that, once you've opened that door just a little bit, it doesn't take too long for the opening to widen? Most likely, he does, which is exactly why he sings about it.
Or he takes it out on himself and everyone else of his own caliber — ʽWe Rule The Schoolʼ ends with a lightly enigmatic "You know the world was made for men / Not us", as the accompanying romantic pianos and cellos bring to mind... well, I was almost going to say Dennis Wilson and Pacific Ocean Blues, but Dennis Wilson, a «man» in every sense of the word, would probably never have penned that line, even when composing in a thoroughly broken-hearted state. (Actually, the best thing about the song is its understated woodwind solo bit — a beautiful little bit of phrasing there, making me wish they'd inserted more of those short solos throughout, but an indie kid's worst nightmare is always to come across as «indulgent», a risk somehow perceived in even a few bars of soloing — or, perhaps, the average indie kid is simply afraid to show off his relative incompetence, or, most likely, both at the same time).
In any case, Tigermilk is one of those debut albums that promise a long, respectable, successful career where the highest point would never get out of sight of the lowest one — if you do not climb all that high, you should have no fear of falling. And it does have its own spirit, so that even long after Stuart Murdoch ceases to be a contemporary role model for Glaswegian adolescents, young people all around the world can still use the album in order to deduce the difference between a Nick Drake in 1972 and a «Nick Drake» in 1996. A well-pleased, if not as inadequately overawed as some of the attested reviews, thumbs up here.Check "Tigermilk" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Tigermilk" (MP3) on Amazon