BELLE AND SEBASTIAN: PUSH BARMAN TO OPEN OLD WOUNDS (1997-2001/2005)
CD I: 1) Dog On Wheels; 2) The State I Am In; 3) String Bean Jean; 4) Belle & Sebastian; 5) Lazy Line Painter Jane; 6) You Made Me Forget My Dreams; 7) A Century Of Elvis; 8) Photo Jenny; 9) A Century Of Fakers; 10) Le Pastie De La Bourgeoisie; 11) Beautiful; 12) Put The Book Back On The Shelf/Songs For Children.
CD II: 1) This Is Just A Modern Rock Song; 2) I Know Where The Summer Goes; 3) The Gate; 4) Slow Graffiti; 5) Legal Man; 6) Judy Is A Dick Slap; 7) Winter Wooskie; 8) Jonathan David; 9) Take Your Carriage Clock And Shove It; 10) The Loneliness Of A Middle Distance Runner; 11) I'm Waking Up To Us; 12) I Love My Car; 13) Marx And Engels.
From an inevitably Beatlish perspective, this lengthy 2-CD retrospective is Belle & Sebastian's Past Masters Vol. 1: a compilation that does not add much to one's understanding of the band's essence if you already got all the regular LPs, but a quintessential artefact all the same if you are enough of a fan to want to own everything «important». The discs neatly and meticulously collect almost everything that Murdoch and Co. released in between the regular LPs: four EPs recorded and published in 1997-98 and three singles released in 2000-2001. In other words, the album elegantly reflects the first period of the band's existence — the «introspective folk-pop years», stopping right before the transition to the louder, more colorful pop-rock sound of Dear Catastrophe Waitress and Life Pursuit.
To own such a well-assembled collection is always pleasant for a reviewer, providing the opportunity to avoid reviewing each little EP under its own title or ignoring them altogether — but it also makes life tough at the same time, since there is so much material here that picking out the highlights and striving not to forget to pat the «hidden gems» on the back can be a real headache. The problem is, Murdoch took as much care of and pride in his EPs and singles as everything else, and none of these songs could be described as «filler»: everything shows the same attention to detail, focus on taste, and lyrical insight as the best songs on Tigermilk and whatever followed. And just as well, at the same time, everything sounds «the same» — permeated with the mellow-morose vibe, pretty, smart, and relatively hookless.
So as not to get lost myself and not to lose anybody else in the process, I will offer a brief-rundown — listing each of the individual components of the retrospective and highlighting what looks like one potential highlight off each one. First on our list is Dog On Wheels, a four-song EP from May 1997, thematically linked to Tigermilk (both records even have the same Joanne Kenney on the photo, this time with a toy animal instead of a real one). The title track, with its unusually (for Murdoch) bluesy acoustic melody appeals to me on a special level, but «objectively» the EP is more notable for containing a song that is actually titled ʽBelle & Sebastianʼ — its lyrics finally providing the curious fans with an artistic motivation behind the choice of the band's name, rather than just the dry technical facts. Other than Murdoch singing about an octave higher than his normal range allows him without straining, it is quite a touching experience.
Next, we have Lazy Line Painter Jane, another 4-song EP where the highlight is clearly the title track, recorded in a church hall (too bad the organ employed is clearly not the church organ) as a duet between Murdoch and guest vocalist Monica Queen — a dense, fully arranged number making good use of the echoey acoustics when it comes to the climactic crescendo, and sarcastically assassinating a «sexually liberated» protagonist along the way. The lyrics may be just a little too silly and a little too vile, but musically, the song is one of their more interesting productions of 1997, before the sonic ambitions were toned down once again.
Following this up with 3.. 6.. 9 Seconds Of Light, another EP where I was initially seduced by the fast-moving, wildly agitated ʽLe Pastie De La Bourgeoisieʼ, but eventually decided that it is trumped by ʽBeautifulʼ, which rolls along at a slower pace, leisurely takes its time to build up, and eventually unfurls into a majestic, but incredibly sad allegoric anthem to all the silly people, deluded by society and themselves, with strings, brass, organ, and vocal harmonies gracefully assembled together in one polyphonic lament. Again, this sort of arrangement is not at all typical of the band's early studio LPs, showing that Murdoch regarded LP expression and EP expression as two significantly different kinds of activity.
The fourth EP, This Is Just A Modern Rock Song, released late in 1998, does not particularly impress me with anything. Its title track drags on for seven minutes and mainly depends on its autobiographical flavor — beginning with an account of some of Stuart's girl relations and then going on to comment on the entire band ("we're four boys in corduroys, we're not terrific but we're competent"), name-dropping Dostoyevsky and ending with self-irony ("I count three, four and then we start to slow, because a song has got to stop somewhere"), but really, melodically the whole thing is too bit of a drag. Murdoch is a man of many talents, but it is not in his power to come up with his own ʽDesolation Rowʼ — his metabolism rate is too slow for that.
The second disc is almost completely devoted to the single format, and the songs there progressively keep sliding into smoother, more lethargic territory, although ʽLegal Manʼ is a psychedelic dance number, on the surface — retro-oriented at recapturing the «sunshine» of hippie happiness, under the surface — most likely, an ironic look at the ongoing revivalism of Sixties idealism, with its fairy chants of "L-O-V-E love, it's coming back, it's coming back" and appeals to the listener to "get out of the city and into the sunshine". I do not think the song works at all — it is too dazed and melancholic to imitate stark raving happiness, and too stark ravingly happy to match the usual melancholic standards. Stuck somewhere in the middle with no particular place to go, and I'd rather listen to ʽJudy Is A Dick Slapʼ, which (thank God!) is actually an instrumental driven by what sounds like a Moog solo (in the 2000s? Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson ahoy!).
Still, some of the B-sides have their little pings and clinks: ʽThe Loneliness Of A Middle Distance Runnerʼ has a cool flanging effect on the guitar solo, and ʽI Love My Carʼ is quite a hilarious martial-pop Kinkophile dream that also finds space to accommodate the Beach Boys, as "I love my car" eventually becomes "I love my Carl" and the verse is tolerantly concluded with the line "...I could even find it in my head to love Mike Love". Okay, so I admit that I always try to measure my feelings for Murdoch art without taking lyrics into consideration, but I also have to admit that the man has a good feel for phonetics, allowing sound similarity to lead him in all sorts of unpredictable directions — good bribery material for any writer with a linguistic background, that. On this note, I have no choice but to give the compilation a thumbs up and state that its first disc at least is a strong pretender to «best B&S album of the 20th century», whereas the second one, dispensing its highs and lows with a little less energy, still has its fair share of pleasures for the experienced fan. And yes, these are «old wounds» indeed, but enough of them have a significantly unusual shape for the experienced sadomasochist not to get bored.
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