Thursday, December 25, 2008

2. Belle and Sebastian's The Boy With The Arab Strap (1998)

This album? According to most Belle and Sebastian fans, this isn't even their best one. Hell, the author of Belle and Sebastian: Just a Modern Rock Story claims it is their worst. But I care not for the opinions of Belle and Sebastian fans. Although I suppose I am one. But I wouldn't consider myself the typical Belle and Sebastian fan, at least.

To me, the typical Belle and Sebastian fan would be someone more like my brother. From 1997 to 1998 he'd been studying abroad in England, and when he came back he started ranting and raving about "this incredibly obscure Scottish band, they're not even famous in Scotland." He hoisted a cassette copy of If You're Feeling Sinister in the air. I took a look at it.

"What is this, some kind of folk music duo?"

"Actually they're a band of about seven people and there isn't actually anyone in the band named Belle or Sebastian."

OK, weird. I was rather skeptical of this album's potential quality, for mainly two reasons: 1) it was new, and 2) my brother liked it. My brother liked all kinds of crap, such as Yanni and the Indigo Girls. So here's some band that I've never heard of before, and he's telling me it's amazing. Fat chance. Sure enough, he played the album to me, and I wasn't overly impressed. I thought the song title "Like Dylan in the Movies" was clever, but I could tell that my brother didn't even get the reference. I told him that it sounded like Nick Drake, which is impressive in retrospect because I hadn't actually heard Nick Drake at that point; I'd only read about him and imagined what he sounded like, and what I imagined Nick Drake to sound like sounded like...Belle and Sebastian! To be fair, I didn't listen very closely, but I do find it interesting, knowing the album's reputation now, that I was totally unenthusiastic about Sinister at that point. A couple of theories: 1) I had no idea who Stuart Murdoch was, or what he was about, or why I should have cared; 2) my brother was sitting there in the car telling me how great the album was, and no sane music listener can function under those conditions; 3) Sinister just wasn't destined to be my favorite Belle and Sebastian album.

Fast-forward a couple of months to November 1998. I am a freshman in college. My brother, clearly undeterred by my lack of enthusiasm for the band, sends me a tape with If You're Feeling Sinister on one side and the band's brand new album, The Boy with the Arab Strap, on the other. I figure, "Aw, what the hell, might as well give this new one a quick listen and placate my brother, I'm sick of my Supertramp tapes for the time being." So I put it in the player.

And it was good. Really good. Better than Supertramp good. And that's pretty good. It was like a full-on sensory onslaught. It was like a rainy autumn afternoon, or a dip in a summer stream. One beguiling melody just blended right into the next and I couldn't even tell where one song began and another ended. It was just a giant sloshing sea of keyboards, pianos, trumpets, violins, guitars, handclaps, bagpipes, recorders, name it. I didn't bother listening to the lyrics; I assumed they were probably great and left it at that. Before the album was even over, I knew it was a winner. brother liked these guys! I couldn't just tell him he was right, could I? Next time we spoke on the phone, I considered mentioning it, but after he divulged some grotesque sexual exploits, I decided not to bother. The mere thought of the album made me think of my brother's neuroses, so I locked it away in a drawer for months, still only having listened to it that one time. But I knew. I knew it was one of those albums that would sound good the second time and the third time and the thirteen hundredth time, because I know these things.

Eventually, after placing sufficient distance between my brother's unnecessary divulgences and the tape he made me, I returned to Arab Strap in full force. I must have listened to it more times than Stuart Murdoch probably listened to Hatful of Hollow. As soon as "The Roller Coaster Ride" would crawl to a finish, I'd immediately rewind the tape right back to "He had a stroke at the age of 24/It could have been a brilliant career." Since I didn't have the lyric sheet, I tried my best to decipher the band's impenetrable Scottish references. For years I thought "Has he ever seen Dundee" in "Seymour Stein" was "Has he ever seen Gandhi?" I didn't know what the hell seeing Gandhi had to do with Seymour Stein, but I'd sure as hell seen Gandhi (some of the lyrics I was sure I misunderstood I'd actually heard correctly; apparently he really was saying "The United States of Calamity, hey"). On breaks from college, I used to hop in the car at 3:00 in the morning and just drive down the coast. One time I remember parking the car out by Pigeon Point Lighthouse, with nobody else around, just me and the crescent moon and the ocean. It's starting to sound like with every single album on this list I went out and stared at the crystalline wonder of the night sky, but come on, if great albums don't make you want to go out and stare at the crystalline wonder of the night sky, then what the hell are they good for?!

Now that I liked Arab Strab, I gave Sinister another try - but I still agreed with my initial assessment. Gradually I came to learn that I had fallen for the wrong Belle and Sebastian album! In fact, Arab Strap was apparently a huge step backward for the band, according to the group's highly passionate fans. I think Sinister is an album on which the lyrics are more prominent, and more immediately entertaining. A lot of fans fell in love with Murdoch's lyrics and simply wanted more of his lyrics, so when, on Arab Strap, he started letting Isobel and Stevie Jackson write songs, fans were like, "WTF? We want Stuart Murdoch songs with witty Stuart Murdoch lyrics!" Since I didn't worship Sinister in that way, I never felt like Arab Strap was a disappointment. I can see why a lot of fans would have, but I don't share their hostility. Parts of Sinister come off to me as a little overly-cutesy or too charming by half. I think the lyrical approach on Arab Strap is a little more mature and confident. Sinister is sort of pitched, perhaps unintentionally, to a more exclusive audience - like, "Hey, you found us, congratulations!" Whereas on Arab Strab the band knew it already had an audience and kept the in-jokes to a minimum. I also think the melodies on Arab Strap are simply...stronger. About a third of the songs on Sinister, like "Fox in the Snow," "Mayfly," and "The Boy Done Wrong Again," strike me as a bit meh. Perhaps there aren't any songs on Arab Strap quite as well-written as "Like Dylan in the Movies" or "Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying," but Arab Strap, for me at least, has more color and texture overall. (Truth be told, Arab Strap's toughest competition probably comes from Belle and Sebastian's own EPs; if Push Barman To Open Old Wounds were an album proper, it might have made my list.)

Many fans also point to Murdoch's (soon-to-be-permanent) decision to divvy up the songwriting as evidence of Arab Strap's inferiority to Sinister, but, when I first began listening to the album at least, I liked that some of the songs were written by other members but that most of the songs were still written by Murdoch. I liked this idea of Murdoch as ringmaster but not dictator. To me, the balance on Arab Strap seemed just right, and it wasn't until the follow-up, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, where the balance became genuinely out of whack (that and the fact that Murdoch's songs were...not as good). In retrospect, now that Stevie Jackson has been given ample opportunity to shine and, in the opinion of many, has ultimately revealed himself to be a lesser talent than Murdoch, I am not as enthusiastic about "Seymour Stein" and "Chickfactor" as I once was. I must admit I cringe a little when I hear him sing "I caught a glimpse of someone's face" and he sings the word "faa-a-a-a-ce" like he's about two seconds away from soiling his pants in trepidation. But back in 1998, how was I to know that Stevie Jackson would become...Stevie Jackson? Likewise, Isobel Campbell's hushed whisper on "Is It Wicked Not To Care?" is not for all tastes; she sounds as though one poke in the ribs would knock her right over. But see, Arab Strap is so eclectic! In the space of about five minutes, you go from the funky, handclap-laden outro of "Seymour Stein," to Stuart David's surf-jazz sci-fi spoken word piece "A Spaceboy Dream," to Stuart Murdoch's orchestrated, Motownesque erotic rumination "Dirty Dream No. 2." But it all just sounds like the band jamming! I think this is what Beck was trying to sound like half the time - except with, you know, actual soul and feeling.

Still, although the album is more than the sum of its blah blah blah, two songs stand out to me as particularly exemplary. "Sleep the Clock Around" features what appears to be a saw as percussion and also the best use of bagpipes in pop music history. The lyrics are perhaps a snapshot of what it must be like to bum around Glasgow on the dole:

In the morning you come to the ladies salon
To get all fitted out for The Paperback Throne
But the people are living far away from the place
Where you wanted to help, it's a bit of a waste
And the puzzle will last till somebody will say
"There's a lot to be done while your head is still young"
If you put down your pen, leave your worries behind
Then the moment will come, and the memory will shine

When Stuart and Isobel hit the word "shine," suddenly there's this sound that's like God's head exploding. There's also a nice trumpet solo as well.

The title track opens with the world's most hypnotic organ riff and settles into a groove that circles around itself for five minutes and would be just as enjoyable, as far as I'm concerned, if it continued on for twenty. Murdoch uses the song's bouncy rhythm as a cover for a stream-of-consciousness diatribe that features some of his nastiest lyrics ever:

A central location for you is a most as you stagger about making free
With your lewd and lascivious boasts
We all know you're soft 'cause we've all seen you dancing
We all know you're hard 'cause we've all seen you drinking from noon
Until noon again
You're the boy with the filthy laugh
You're the boy with the arab strap

What I love about Belle and Sebastian is the contrast between the delicate, pastoral musical setting and the biting, sarcastic lyrical content. I don't even know who Murdoch is ripping on, but I'll be damned if I'm not bopping my head and clapping along every time. He's the master of elegant pop with an edge.

Speaking of mastery: Arab Strap is so stocked with hidden riches that only just recently did I genuinely notice the second-to-last track, "Simple Things." It's only 1:45 in duration but Murdoch doesn't waste a note. Sandwiched between "Chickfactor" and "The Rollercoaster Ride," tracks so quiet they're almost on life support, "Simple Things" is like a bracing burst of urgency and conciseness:

If you want me I'll be there
A boy to deal with all your problems
But part of the deal
Is for you to feel something

If you want me look me up
I don't exist in usual places
Subtle as the wind is grey

If you want me you know where I am
I saw your arms in a dream
And there were blue veins blue
Blue veins

If you want me all you have to do
Is ask a thousand questions
Triplicate and file under
"Simple things you ask to make a young boy sigh"

So how about that? Ten years later, and my brother's discovery is rewarding me still. Just don't tell him I said so.

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