Saturday, November 25, 2006

In The Dock: Belle & Sebastian

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

The Jonathans are taking over...

This week's subject: Belle & Sebastian

The case for the prosecution (Jonathan S)

The germ of Belle & Sebastian’s music was, oddly and appropriately, rooted in sickness. Stuart Murdoch, the band’s main songwriter and driving force, took to songwriting late, and only did so during an extended bout of illness in the early 1990s. This tells you almost everything you need to know about Belle & Sebastian.

Aiming to prosecute a band over an irrational hatred is probably a bad place to start, but I have experienced something like ten years of throbbing, persistent irritation when it comes to B&S. At university my friend, Chris, was forever playing their first album, and when we did a student radio show together I would always pick the fiercest, most corrosive bit of punk or hip-hop to follow his selections, to illustrate retrospectively how weak, how insipid his favourite band was.

Over the years I’ve evolved from this visceral reaction to a more measured, weary antipathy. And at the same time, I’ve noted that there are things to like about B&S. Despite many of their songs, like the quite sweet ‘Lazy Line Painter Jane’ starting so softly and weakly that I want to bash the turntable, they have a habit of picking up a head of steam and attaining a kind of mimsy northern soul stomp which I can enjoy. And Murdoch is clearly capable of writing good lyrics, too. Other people balk at B&S because of their fanbase, I’ve noticed, the cardigan and spectacle wearing indie-boys, the cutesy girls with their vintage dresses. This isn’t something that bothers me much either – I’ve met a lot of the latter over the years and I usually want to go to bed with them, rather than snap their hairclips.

I mean, they’re twee. Everyone can see that, and that’s another reason people seem to hate them. But I’ve got a pile of Sarah 7”s in the corner myself – not been listened to for a while, but they’re there, and they used to mean a lot to me. So what is it that winds me up so much, which makes me stick my fingernails into my palms when I hear their records?

It all goes back to that sickness, I think. Their songs sound so rooted in it, so redolent of that drowsy, insipid climb back to health. They make me a bully, resenting their apologetic, pathetic tone, the self-imposed limitations of their sound. The melodies are unbearably sugary, counterbalancing the frailty of the music, but that just makes me more angry still, the chirpy, soulless horn arrangements, this kind of faux-joyful passive aggression. When I see a child in a supermarket banging his little fists on the floor, I think of Belle & Sebastian.

The smugness is a big problem. Murdoch is an OK lyricist, although totally lacking the wit of, say, Morrissey. Even Darren Hefner manages better jokes than him. But frequently the cleverness of the lyrics totally undermines any sense of charm – "It doesn't pay to be smarter than teachers / Smarter than most boys". Murdoch comes off a little like the anti-hero of Wes Anderson’s hugely likeable 'Rushmore', but taken as a whole B&S remind me more of his ‘The Life Aquatic’, which is admirable in parts but taken as a whole teeth-grindingly irritating. Murdoch’s occasionally self-satisfied air, the sneering put-downs in his lyrics… at least Morrissey knew how to laugh at himself.

Occasionally B&S make me wonder if I’ve been unnecessarily harsh to them over the years – deciding to record with Trevor Horn would have been a good idea if they hadn’t introduced a range of ghastly 70s rock influences at the same time. B&S doing Thin Lizzy really is too much. The Life Pursuit captured my attention via a slight tightening up and some unexpected lines ("Another day in June / We’ll pick eleven for football / We’re playing for our lives / The referee gives us fuck all") but the glam rock riffs just make you think "is this as ambitious as they get?". And why aren’t they bothering with tunes any more?

What I hate about B&S is the persistent failure to get their obvious qualities across. How can I love a band who engineer the line "You are the funny little frog in my throat" so that the last word rhymes with "poet"? Somehow B&S just manage to make their meek, romantic vision of love and art just seem so horridly arid and thin, textureless. Personally, when they play, each of my hackles is simultaneously raised. Whatever hackles are.

The case for the defence (Jonathan B)

Thursday lunchtime, and I have retired to the upstairs bar of Manchester’s Cornerhouse café, which is, I think, an appropriately bohemian location in which to compose an impassioned defence of everyone’s favourite fey Glaswegian indie popstrels Belle & Sebastian. 750 words or less, Ben tells me - and as I have just wasted 46 of them telling you what I get up to on my Thursday lunch-hour, perhaps I should get to the point. Now then, those charges…

Charge number one: (at least I imagine so, the defence counsel not having been privy to the prosecution papers, which strikes me as a grievous assault on the most basic of legal principles, but what can you do?)…. Belle & Sebastian Are Too Damn Twee For Their Own Good.

Now I should make an admission here right from the start, which is that I’m not sure I believe it is actually possible to be too twee at all. I mean, what is there not to like about anaemic quartets of provincial indie-kids with second-hand stripey cardigans and third-hand jangly guitars, shambling around the country apparently under the impression it’s still 1987? I for one can’t think of anything remotely distasteful about such a scenario, and in fact if I had my way would have the whole damn lot of you forcibly transported back to 1987, when Marks & Spencers cardigans were de rigueur among the nation’s youth, and latterday rock 'n' roll wildmen Primal Scream were still sporting floppy fringes and trading in uber-jangly 90 second bouncealong laments to unrequited love with names like ‘Velocity Girl’.

Oh bugger, I’m making the prosecution case here, aren’t I? Time to move along, I think, to….

Charge number two: That singer bloke out of Belle & Sebastian can’t really sing, can he?

Look, we know Stuart Murdoch can’t really sing; it’s all part of the indiepop aesthetic, like wearing your grandad’s cardigans and spending November afternoons on park benches gazing across the boating lake and pining after that girl on 2nd year Humanities with the perfect 60s bob and the long big-buttoned pale-blue raincoat. Anyway, if you took Stuart Murdoch out of Belle & Sebastian and replaced him with some show-off who could actually sing, like the bloke out of Wet Wet Wet or, I don’t know, Luciano Pavarotti, then, well, it wouldn’t sound quite right, would it?

No, if you want booming, swooping vocals then bugger off to La Scala or somewhere. Otherwise, leave us indiekids alone to trill along into our bedsit hairdryers with our fragile, reed-thin vocal chords. Do you not think we have enough to worry about, what with the extortionate price of cardigans these days, and the girl with the perfect bob unaccountably falling for that geeky fourth-year chemist with the acne and the shelf-full of Level 42 albums?

Charge number three: Belle & Sebastian have only really got two songs; the slow one with the quiet jangly guitars, and the fast one with the loud jangly guitars.

Now I’m just not having that. There’s also the really slow one with the acoustic-sounding guitars and the girl singer (who can actually sing but we’re not holding that against her), and the really fast one with the extra-jangly guitars, the brass section, and the highland fling. And then there’s the one which starts off fast but ends up slow, and the one which starts off slow (with the girl singer), but ends up fast (with the boy singer, and possibly a trumpet). So that’s at least six songs, which is three more than Oasis managed, and four-and-a-half more than Travis, Coldplay and the Magic Numbers put together. And how many of those outfits, by the way, do you suppose have released seven increasingly critically-acclaimed albums, the sixth of which was produced by the legendary Trevor Horn - a man one does not readily associate with plodding indiepop-ghetto sameyness?

Not many, I’ll warrant. Now then, I think I have worked myself up into quite enough of a righteous indiepop lather for one lunchtime - and, much as I might like to spend my afternoon lounging in this here bohemian coffee-bar I really can’t, largely on account of the fact I’m not a member of Belle & Sebastian. Life is so unfair! I entreat you, members of the jury, to prove there is at least some justice in the world by finding my stripey-T-shirted clients innocent of the charges levelled against them - whatever they may turn out to have been. Thank you and good night.

* * * * *

Thanks to both Jonathans. Now it's over to you. Guilty or innocent - YOU decide. The comments box is open and awaiting your comments - you've got until Friday to make up your mind...


Blogger Ben said...

As far as I was concerned, this was always going to be a very, very tough gig for Jonathan B. And to be fair he makes a decent fist of it and raises a few smiles along the way.

But they're guilty, guilty, guilty.

I'm so glad I opted not to take up Jonathan B's gauntlet and prosecute B&S myself, deciding that I'd written too much about them lately - because Jonathan S has done a far better job than I ever could. His prosecution case is eloquent and considered and superbly articulates some of the most grating things about the band - that sickness, that bloodlessness, that feebleness that Murdoch's voice brings to every song.

Yes, the history of music is littered with vocalists whose voices could almost certainly not be classified as "good" in classical pitch-perfect terms, and with others whose style is so idiosyncratic they are invariably an acquired taste. And I like many such vocalists - Kim Gordon, for instance. But Murdoch's? No no no...

And there's a weediness about the music that I can't quite get over, either. Not that I'm a fan of macho music - on the contrary, I'm increasingly warming to sedate and temperate sounds. Just not B&S.

That said, I had wondered whether it was less the band and more their stereotypical fans that I loathed, but recent repeated exposure to the B&S track 'Put The Book Back On The Shelf' proved otherwise.

As for my general tolerance of their Summer Sundae set down to extreme drunkenness, I put that down to extreme drunkenness, m'lud...

4:04 pm  
Blogger Damo said...

Well sorry Jonathan S, I read your case VERY carefully to see if you could persuade me otherwise.

You couldn't.

If every band was like B&S, that would be a bad thing. But so would it be if every band was permanently gut-wrenchingly visceral. So it comes down to the tunes, I guess.

I like Metallica. I also like B&S. These likes are not mutually exclusive. And while I know the hardcore B^S fan prefers... well, everything that wasn't the last two albums, said albums are personally my favourites. They've become a top notch pop band. "I'm A Cuckoo" makes me very very happy every time I hear it. And the song you pick out as a particular example is a song from the perspective of someone being bullied. Hardly an ode to smugness.

They've been contrary buggers sometimes in the past, but never to the detriment of their music, and these days they're properly out of their shells. Their set at Reading this weekend was an absolute joy. I think it's back to my whole mock-indignity ... i.e. "how DARE they entertain people?" - they got some girl out of the crowd and danced with her for one song. Nothing ground-breaking, but if you were there... to see the look on her face when Stuart Murdoch finally persuaded her to actually look at the crowd. And so on.

I've never been one to put on 'down' music to consolidate a 'down' mood. I need something to make me happier, and their stuff does me nicely. That or a blast of "Enter Sandman"...

Erm, defence it is, then.

5:41 pm  
Blogger LB said...

nope, they do absolutely nothing for me either.

Both good arguments, though, persuaded slightly by the prosection.

Guilty, ta.

6:26 pm  
Blogger mike said...

I really thought that Dear Catastrophe Waitress had converted me... but after The Life Pursuit, I've decided that this must have been a Horn-inspired anomaly.

The fact that my favourite B&S track is actually an Avalanches remix doesn't bode well, either.

Guilty, and for many of the reasons that the prosecution states.

6:54 pm  
Blogger swisslet said...

I used to *loathe* B&S. I hated them with a passion that was astonishing for a band I had never actually listened to. I hated everything about them, but mostly I hated the type of person who liked them - those horrid, insipid people with thick rimmed glasses and earnest looking faces that I desperately wanted to punch. I hated the fact that they were the absolute personification of indie-dom. I saw them performing "Legal Man" on top of the pops and I hated them. I hated the fact that they had somehow made mileage out of the fact that this drivel was the first time they had deigned to appear on the programme.

Then, one night round at a mate's house, I casually asked him what album he was playing because I really liked it. It was "If You're Feeling Sinister" and my world changed in an instant.

Damn them, but I couldn't deny the evidence of my own ears. That's still my favourite album (closely followed by "Dear Catastrophe Waitress), but I really, really like them. I've got no issues with Murdoch's voice at all.

I'm really, really sorry about this. I'd almost love to hate them and vote with the prosecution, but I can't. They've absolutely, categorically won me over to their cause.

Defence. No question (although much of what I hated about them before is still true, naturally).


8:45 pm  
Blogger Pete Ashton said...


And I like Looper too.

5:07 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just checking in to see what the other side has got to say.. and I must say I appear to have had the misfortune to come up against the most skilled prosecution advocate so far. Fair play to you, there, the other Jonathan... for a few moments you even had me nearly wavering there. Only nearly, mind.. I have put on The Life Pursuit and an extra cardigan to give me the strength needed to resist your arguments (not that I would have been able to vote anyway, of course).

Oh and I'm glad you have mentioned the Thin Lizzy influences on The Life Pursuit, because I always assumed I must be just imagining them...

10:36 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If You're Feeling Sinister is one of my favourite albums ever.

Innocent (even if their latter albums are boring)

10:56 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can say what you want about "the cardigan and spectacle wearing indie-boys, the cutesy girls with their vintage dresses" (although it was mainly scruffy jeans and leather jackets when I saw them earlier this year), but British music would be a poorer place without Belle and Sebastian.

Yes, they are twee; and yes, that "Storytelling" soundtrack was a bit throwaway, but that's just who they are. The music is original, the lyrics are frequently rich in irony and their live appearances are always entertaining.

On a more personal note, the gorgeous 'A Summer Wasting' reminds me of doing just that a few years ago with plentiful cold beers on long warm evenings.

And last, but not least, they (or rather their fanbase) beat frickin' Steps to the Best Newcomer award (despite being on their third album...haha) at the Brits. And for that, m'lud, they should not only be found "not guilty", but knighted as well.

11:56 pm  
Blogger Damo said...

>Oh and I'm glad you have mentioned the Thin Lizzy influences on The Life Pursuit, because I always assumed I must be just imagining them...

"I'd rather listen to Thin Lizzy-o..."

9:16 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People here seem to be concentrating on the perhaps weaker newer albums such as 'The Life Persuit'. Their earlier output is still very much their strongest in my opinion and I think far less 'twee' than their Top of the Pops era stuff.

No one too has also touched upon the early myth that surrounded Belle & Sebastian that they would'nt play live and when they did they played quietly. They didn't do public performances for a while and this ironically helped to build their persona. They were just a records band, but the records were, lets not forget really strong.

To all the doubters of how good this band were and perhaps still are go and buy the 3..6..9 Seconds of Light EP and listen again to If Your Feeling Sinister. The track 'The Fox in the Snow' for one is dark, beguiling and beautiful with a guitar solo midway to change any B&S doubter.

11:24 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, as I wear glasses, cardigans and hand-me-down clothes (a kind of vintage), and I've been very very ill for long bouts in my time I seem to be destined to vote innocent...and I am. I don't mind being a cliche (I am even short and have freckles) because Fold Your Hand's Child You Walk Like a Peasant is a great album.
(I must admit I fell out of love with them after The Life Persuits though...)

3:09 pm  
Blogger Martin said...

Ben: I don't think that the opposite of weediness is necessarily macho (not in indie terms, anyway; the Mary Chain weren't much more than junkie streaks of piss after all, were they?)

Having said that, I can't argue with sickness, bloodlessness and feebleness but on the rare occasions I listen to B&S I don't do it to consolidate a 'down' mood, which is why they work for me. Similarly, I don't listen to The Smiths or Mozza because I identify with the lyrics but because I like the atmosphere they create. Or the Mary Chain because I'm a heroin addict. You don't have to share a band's way of thinking to like their music, fortunately.

As for the image of cardigans, vintage dresses and horn-rimmed glasses, I find B&S are better if you don't look at them or their fans (yes, I know what I said about The Levellers, but that's different). Graham Coxon - that's how indie musicians should wear glasses.

I can't say I'm a massive fan but reckon that they're justified as leading lights in a particular 'scene.' Following on from last week's theme of justifying something because you like a small part of it though, 'Step Into My Office, Baby' declares them innocent as far as I'm concerned.

This site is so indie it's like staring at your shoes. Mine eyes!

11:10 pm  
Blogger LB said...

I'd have voted for Steps above them as "best newcomer" all day long.

Tragedy! (etc)

*does hair wash dance*

6:21 pm  
Blogger Simon said...

I always knew it'd take an emotive subject to remind me to contribute one of these weeks, and this one seems like a good place to start.

I'll declare my hand straight off: innocent. And that's despite The Life Pursuit. See, I was 18 when I bought If You're Feeling Sinister, precisely the right age for the post-Britpop "oh, I have to like this music with guitars now, do I?" generational tipping point, and at that time it felt like stumbling into a world of musical possibility where you can start an album with a song like The Stars Of Track And Field, which begins with Ming vase-like delicacy and ends with a Velvets-do-C86 wash to augment a song about youthful sexual/career drive with a sporting motif (side note: why are there so many sporting references in B&S songs? They're barely the first band that come to mind in that context). Just for a bit there they drew me completely in and, like the Smiths, they had their own external references, of Penguin paperbacks and Postcard Records. It was virtually a letdown when Murdoch began doing interviews. But they were great and got the whole field moving for the first time all weekend at Summer Sundae, and they made La Pastie De La Bourgeioisie (surely the title most likely to set people's teeth on edge, but it's excellent), and so they're cleared of the charges.

6:56 pm  
Blogger Damo said...

White Collar Boy... Funny Little Frog... Another Sunny Day... etc.

How can people not love The Life Pursuit? I'd insert the word 'affirming' in the title if I had my way...

12:30 am  
Blogger Del said...

Hmmm. Two excellent arguments on a band who've always remained just off my radar. My housemate at University worshipped them to the point of annoyance. But that's not their fault.

The practically pornographic cover of Tigermilk has permanently scarred me. I can't look my Tigger soft toy in the eye after seeing that.

But at the end of the day, the few B&S tunes that have pierced my shield of indifference ('Legal Man' and 'Boy With The Arab Strap' aka The Theme from Teachers) were alright, I suppose.

Sadly the reality is that if I investigated the band further, I think I'd actually rather enjoy them. And that actually depresses me rather a lot. So should I be a man and take my own feyness on the chin, or take the easy route and condemn them, thus exonerating myself?

Tough one that. Easy route. Guilty.

1:23 am  
Blogger swisslet said...

It doesn't add anything to the debate, but I just feel I ought to say that "Piazza, New York Catcher" is my favourite B&S song. It's not typical, but I adore it.



2:04 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh I love that one as well... it's another one with sporting references. As Simon says above for an outfit dismissed as hopelessly twee they do throw in a lot of references to supposedly macho pursuits- although sometimes they appear to be trying a bit too hard and fail entirely to convince, such as that line 'pick eleven for football...referee gives us fuck all' referred to in the prosecution case. You can't help thinking Stuart Murdoch would be way too mild-mannered to speak such words to the face of a Glasgow Sunday League ref....

Or maybe they're not trying hard enough-could Belle and Sebastian's next move be to give up making records altogether in favour of releasing a series of car maintenance manuals?

4:13 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Belle and Sebastian have to be the Marmite of music.

I first heard of B & S when drinking with the President of the Oxford University Port Society, he said "Oh you don't listen to Belle and Sebastian? To listen to Belle and Sebastian is the epitome of student cool." As a result I immediately hated them. I hadn't heard them, but stupidly decided that I didn't want to like them for what the seemed to represent.

My road to Damascus was listening to 'Fold Your Hand's Child You Walk Like a Peasant' in the North York Moors whilst reading Peter Cook's biography. It was all good. It was so good I cursed myself for my stubborness. I've been a fan ever since.

It helped that I'd dipped my toes into folk in the interim. I think B & S certainly borrow from folk, and take the folk style into what is reffered to as twee pop. Get over the twee thing, get over the the image, and just find a corner and listen to them. It did me good.

Even though Jonathan B seemed to err towards the prosecution now and then, the defence get's my vote. I won't apologise, I like Belle and Sebastain, and I'll happily defend them.

9:54 pm  
Blogger Lanterne Rouge said...

I do like B&S and have pretty much all their albums but have always harboured a slight antipathy towards them because I feel they stole the plaudits some great Eighties/C86 bands missed out such as the June Brides and the Bodines. That said, Murdoch and company would be the first to admit this and have always been modest about their success. Dear Catastrophe Waitress onwards, I enjoyed their new confident sound, with the vocals wallowing less in the weediness of before. I think tehry should always have used their female vocalists far more.

3:44 pm  
Anonymous Viagra Blog said...

Well, to be honest, I like Belle & Sebastian and I wouldn't criticize their lyrics. The only thing I would mention is how difficult is listening their albums in a row without getting bored at the sixth song!

8:18 pm  

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