BELLE AND SEBASTIAN: THE BBC SESSIONS (1996-2001/2008)
CD I: 1) The State I Am In; 2) Like Dylan In The Movies; 3) Judy And The Dream Of Horses; 4) The Stars Of Track And Field; 5) I Could Be Dreaming; 6) Seymour Stein; 7) Lazy Jane; 8) Sleep The Clock Around; 9) Slow Graffitti; 10) Wrong Love; 11) Shoot The Sexual Athlete; 12) The Magic Of A Kind Word; 13) Nothing In The Silence; 14) (My Girl's Got) Miraculous Technique.
CD II: 1) Here Comes The Sun; 2) There's Too Much Love; 3) The Magic Of A Kind Word; 4) Me And The Major; 5) Wandering Alone; 6) The Model; 7) I'm Waiting For The Man; 8) The Boy With The Arab Strap; 9) The Wrong Girl; 10) Dirty Dream #2; 11) Boys Are Back In Town; 12) Legal Man.
Since Belle & Sebastian are a studio band, above and beyond everything else, hunting for their live albums is not a particularly rewarding challenge, and they are well aware of it: throughout their entire career, their only single-venue live experience release was a live re-recording of If You're Feeling Sinister, carried out in 2005 at the Barbican Centre in London, and available only in a limited digital format (through iTunes and other such sources) — explained by Murdoch as a necessity, since he was never pleased with the production on the original studio record and wanted to remedy that illness without sacrilegiously tampering with the old tapes.
As for these BBC Sessions, I have no idea how much input Murdoch himself had in the album, but the double-disc version (there is also a single CD version) seemingly contains all the live Belle & Sebastian material you'll ever need and more. The first disc puts together several radio sessions ranging from 1996 to 2001, including a John Peel session with four songs that have remained unreleased on any studio album (enough of an incentive for the fans); the second disc comes from a single show, recorded in Belfast, December 2001, and gives a very good idea of what an actual Belle & Sebastian concert really is — much of the idea being easily predictable, but with a few surprising bits and pieces to show off the band's general smartness.
On Disc 1, most of the performances, while carried out without any problem, come across as cosmetic variations on the originals, so I leave it up to the big fans to spot the differences and make the choices. (A major exception is ʽLazy Janeʼ, an early version of ʽLazy Line Painter Janeʼ that accentuates the folksy nature of the song rather than the studio finalization that added an early Sixties rhythm-and-blues flavor). As to the four new tracks, they are all good, but the only one that strikes me as rising above the everyday quality bar is ʽNothing In The Silenceʼ, with Isobel Campbell lending her «little girl hush-hush» voice to a haunting arrangement that arguably features the best use of harmonica on a Belle & Sebastian track ever, not to mention its interplay with the chimes and violins. It is all the more notable because Murdoch and Co. do not frequently come across as masters of the «solitary inner paradise» genre, reserved for the likes of Broadcast — this is one of their few songs that manages to combine the usual sadness with a sort of inner peace and tranquility, perhaps even a special kind of happiness.
Meanwhile, the Belfast concert is mostly interesting for its choice of covers, balanced around a selection of tunes from Arab Strap, Fold Your Hands, and the band's recent EPs. The show is opened with ʽHere Comes The Sunʼ, eventually proceeds to include the Velvet Underground's ʽWaiting For My Manʼ, and ends with an exaltated version of Thin Lizzy's ʽThe Boys Are Back In Townʼ. Now, clearly, the last choice was triggered by the show's location (a big Irish hit for a big Irish crowd), but surely they wouldn't have done the song if they didn't like it, and it does sound very weird to hear a thick distorted guitar tone, be it even a pop tone, on a Murdoch-led album — and the Velvets' tune, likewise, is another thing with which one would not normally associate a band like this. All the covers are done quite lovingly, even if it is relatively clear that the spirit of these songs does not fully coincide with Murdoch's own spirit. Even ʽHere Comes The Sunʼ comes across as a tune whose nature and purpose they understand, but cannot appropriate for themselves — if only because Murdoch is too much of a bitter cynic to fully embrace its open-hearted idealism. He can love it, and he can simulate it, but he does not believe in it, and I can certainly understand that.
But anyway, regardless of whether you will be able to find a new kind of love for these performances or just file them under the «somewhat superfluous» tag, one does have to admit that, whatever the time period we are talking about, Belle & Sebastian make a very good job of sounding tight and professional when playing live — not a very easy job for an art-pop band that relies on multi-instrumentalism and polyphony as their primary mode of existence. The brass parts, the violin parts, the harmonies — every once in a while, you will find yourself wondering if you are really listening to a live performance or if they just dupe you into believing. Inspiration, feeling, and spontaneity are irreplaceable qualities, but all too often, indie bands tend to forget that they also have to work hard for their money, and listening to Murdoch and his friends sweat it out for the BBC proves their industriousness even more efficiently than their carefully overdubbed and mixed studio efforts. From that point of view, they sure deserve their place in the radio archives, not to mention yet another thumbs up.
Check "The BBC Sessions" (CD) on Amazon
Check "The BBC Sessions" (MP3) on Amazon