Sing Me a Song to Set Me Free
Belle & Sebastian's Rock Problem
Belle & Sebastian must be doing something right. They’re critical darlings, with every one of their releases since 1996’s legendary “Tigermilk” ending up on someone or other’s top ten list; they’ve put out two or three albums that are widely ranked among the best of the last decade. They’re no international superstars, but they’ve made plenty of money; their contract with the Jeepster label is one of the richest in UK indie rock, and they’ve made decent bank in the states from the Matador and Rough Trade deals their hipster cachet netted them. (Original pressings of “Tigermilk” are a particular rarity, selling for upwards of $400.) Likewise, they’re not chart-toppers by any reckoning, but they've had a half-dozen singles crack the top 40 in England, two singles make the top 10 in Canada, and three albums on the Billboard Hot 100 list in the US. They’re a consistently popular touring act, they couldn’t be more respected, and they’re one of the few bands in existence whose every release generates significant buzz regardless of how much PR their label throws at it.
So, what’s the problem?
It’s certainly not that they’re a bad band. They’re not. Whatever configuration of Stuart Murdoch, Stevie Jackson, Sarah Martin, and assorted Scots the band consists of at any given moment, it’s guaranteed to be eminently listenable. They’re technically proficient but never flashy, with an interesting — nearly unique — combination of lush pop, music-hall, and folk. They’ve got a keen sense of melody that many other more popular acts can’t touch, a playful rhythmic sensibility, and a willingness to incorporate unusual instrumentation in their songs. And while Murdoch’s lyrics can occasionally wander into pretension or hyper-sensitivity, they can just as often deliver extremely well-observed slices of life or jarringly right turns of phrase. Even in these days of hype and bandwagon-jumping, a band doesn't get to be this highly acclaimed without having something going on.
It’s not that Belle & Sebastian are overrated. It’s not that they aren’t as good as everyone says. It’s that... well... they just don’t rock.
Go to the self-satisfied music review site of your choice and look up Belle & Sebastian. Go to AllMusic; go to Pitchfork; hell, if you can’t be bothered, stay right here, and I’ll do it for you. Look at the words my fellow music geeks use to describe the Glasgow septet. You’ll find a lot of the same ones used again and again: you’ll see precious. You’ll see twee. You’ll see delicate. If the reviewer is a bit smarter, you might see fey; if a bit ruder, wimpy. You’ll also encounter intimate, shoegazing, sophisticated, bittersweet, and quirky, along with a half-dozen other tools from the critical vocabulary that get used when you’re being assured that this is a band that won’t wake up your neighbors. The one word that will never be used to describe them is rockin’. Maybe rockin’ isn’t actually a word, but whatever it is, the understanding remains that wherever Belle & Sebastian plays, there’s a sign over the door that says “we don’t do that here.”
It’s really unfair for me to subtitle this brief essay “Belle & Sebastian”s Rock Problem,” because really, it’s not theirs. It’s mine. After all, despite the Vocordered claims of drive-time robots, not everyone is looking for all rock all the time. Some people love the quiet hush of an acoustic guitar, the tentative whisper of a brush against a cymbal, the quavering tone of a singer who sounds like he’s afraid of his own voice. There’s plenty of folks on both sides of the big drink who are perfectly content to listen to a band that critics are fond of describing as fey. Unfortunately, I am not one of them. I like it loud, I like it rough, and I like it nasty. I scorn the conscious, thoughtful lyrics of a Talib Kweli for the gutter thugging of the Geto Boys, because I gotta have that bang. I prefer the brute force of Big Black or the set-on-stun roar of Minor Threat to any number of bands with more lyrical subtlety or musical chops. And I would rather listen to Joan Jett cover any number of tired old rock standards than listen to Cat Power cover just about anything.
Which presents me with a bit of a problem. Because I like Belle & Sebastian a lot. And Belle & Sebastian most definitely does not rock.
Or do they? The more I think about them, the more I listen to them, the less sure I am. Maybe I’m deluding myself. Maybe I'm just so ashamed of liking a band so lacking in loud that I’m trying to convince myself that they rock, just to save face. Or maybe, just maybe, they’re capable of a bit more than a casual reading might indicate? I decided to find out.
I first became aware of the possibility that Belle & Sebastian might be able to rock when they took a mind to when I heard the version of “The Boy with the Arab Strap” they performed on John Peel’s radio show. The title track from their third album was always one of their more rollicking numbers; you might not have been able to call it 'rock,' but it most certainly qualified as 'roll,' rock’s long-forgotten partner. The album version is a real winner, with a terrifically rambunctious keyboard hook by the underrated Chris Geddes (who has far more to do with the band’s sound than he’s generally given credit for) and a thrumming Bobby Kildea bass line that almost dares to suggest the golden era of glam rock. In the live version, though, Stuart Murdoch and his mates, clearly having a hell of a time, ramp up the energy in a way that’s almost shocking. Geddes plays around with the organ riff that’s almost Lyresy; the bass propels the song forward like a rocket, perfectly in synch with the jacked-up tempo; and the percussive handclaps which form the song’s rhythmic base benefit greatly from being produced by an enthusiastic audience instead of an electronic chip. It’s a tremendous performance, the kind of song that can make even an unbeliever look at a band in a whole new light. But it’s still possible that it’s bottled lightning, the result of one magic moment in the heat of live performance; it’s not any kind of evidence in itself, no matter how great it is.
The more you listen, though, the more signs appear that this is a band that sounds precisely the way it wants to sound, and isn’t as easy to dismiss as ethereal and airy as they seem. “Lazy Line Painter Jane,” the title track from their first EP, is indisputably a rock song. Stevie Jackson and guest vocalist Monica Queen are the stars here; the former busts out guitar figures straight out of the heyday of the Velvet Underground, and the latter’s expressive, almost hysterical voice is like a slap of ice water for those used to Murdoch’s low-key mutterings. Once again, the percussion starts out with handclaps, but by the end Richard Colburn is bashing on the snare and toms like someone who knows exactly what rock music means.
Belle & Sebastian’s best album, If You’re Feeling Sinister, is rife with unexpected rock moments: it never explodes, but it builds and progresses in such unpredictable — and yet totally necessary — directions, it becomes clear that it’s subtlety and skill that makes them sound the way they do rather than a lack of ability to pull out the stops. The trick here, to use an inappropriately reductive word, is the zero-to-sixty build perfected by Talking Heads in the concert film Stop Making Sense, where a quiet, almost lonely start snowballs until the listener is confronted by half a dozen instruments, all meshing perfectly together in an updated version of the Wall of Sound. On tracks like “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying,” “Me and the Major,” “Judy and the Dream of Horses” and the standout title track, Stuart Murdoch’s simple acoustic strumming seems to set a tone, only to be joined by the six other players on the album as the tempo almost imperceptibly increases and the song ends in a totally different location and with a completely altered mood than it started.
Tigermilk’s stellar “Expectations,” which name-checks the Velvets just as surely as “Lazy Line Painter Jane” sound-checks them, uses a similar acoustic-into-electric slow build, carried along by a terrific loping drone of a bass line and some top-notch trumpet work by Mick Cooke. It’s also aided by one of Murdoch’s nastiest double-edged lyrics, showcasing his ability, when he’s focused enough and not feeling sorry for himself, to come across like a less pretentious version of Morrisey. (It’s a testament to how well Belle & Sebastian work as a group that the vast majority of the material, both music and lyrics are written by Stuart Murdoch alone, but in almost every single one of their best songs, a different member of the band shines, putting in a song-stealing performance.) Even Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, widely considered the band’s one major misstep (and which suffered from the thankfully abandoned decision to make the group a leaderless entity), offers up “The Wrong Girl,” which, with its clanking cowbell and country-tinged guitar line, sounds like a Brit-folk mutation of Uncle Tupelo, a band no one ever accused of not knowing how to rock.
Their most recent LP to date, the outstanding Dear Catastrophe Waitress, made everyone nervous when it was announced that the producer would be the decidedly non-rocking Trevor Horn, responsible for synth-pop novelty acts like Frankie Goes to Hollywood and t.A.t.U. He seemed like the last person in the world who should be working with a band like Belle & Sebastian, rock or no rock, but the collaboration yielded a crop of great songs, with more hard-hitting energy than they’d ever displayed. Far from mellowing with time, Murdoch and company churned out the jaunty, Kinks-like “Piazza, New York Catcher”; the soulful “If She Wants Me”; and the stomping “Step Into My Office, Baby,” possibly the most rockin’ song the band has ever performed and a fantastic lead-in to the album.
Don’t get me wrong. Belle & Sebastian will never be confused with AC/DC. They’re still more concerned with texture and tone than with power and volume. They're never going to appear on anyone’s Jack-Daniels-and-a-mosh-pit mix CD. And while they’re not allergic to their amplifiers and have more than a passing familiarity with what a garage band sounds like (as witnessed by “Lazy Line Painter Jane” and a handful of others), they certainly seem afraid that stepping on a distortion pedal might break their ankles. But they’re clever, playful and energetic; their front man has an unexpectedly wicked side to him that comes out in wildly entertaining ways, and they’ve got passion, hooks, and chops to spare. Anyone who’s willing to give them a fair hearing, without the filter of rock-talk compartmentalizing, should discover that they’re pretty far from a band of sad little clowns wishing wispy little tears into the air. They’re a band even rock fans can be proud of.