Saturday 27 November 2010

Belle and Sebastian "If You're Feeling Sinister" (1996) (News, Views and Music 82, Revised 2014)

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Belle and Sebastian “If You’re Feeling Sinister” (1996)

The Stars Of Track and Field/Seeing Other People/Me And The Major/Like Dylan In The Movies/Fox In The Snow//Get Me Away From Here I'm Dying!/ If You're Feeling Sinister/Mayfly/The Boy Done Wrong Again/Judy And The Dream Of Horses

The sleevenotes for 'Tigermilk' have Stuart Murdoch commenting that 'Sebastian' 'wrote all his best songs in 1995' ('many of them with the words '1995' in them') and his fear over what would happen in 1996. He needn't have worried: while I don't quite rate 'Sinister' as high as 'Tigermilk' there are millions of fans out there who do and the first Belle and Sebastian album to be released by a 'proper' label and could actually be found in some shops is another great album that's still loved by fans more than anything else they ever did.There are some groups that were born for the centre-stage, that flourish in the attention of multi-million record deals, appearances on prime-time TV shows and endless lists of touring dates that only end after one of the band is in rehab or given an MBE or both. And then there are others, real word of mouth groups who live in the fringes on recognition and risk a long horrible musical death every time they are let out of the can labelled ‘cult’. Many of our readers seem surprised that Belle and Sebastian are part of our great website journey at all, coming from a different time period and a different mindset to pretty much everyone else on this list (apart, perhaps, from the still under-rated behind-all-that-hoohah Oasis). But good music is good music whenever it comes from and whoever makes it. B+S do so belong on the list, with their music a timeless blend of instruments and production values that have been around since time immemorial and albums that could have been recorded at any time in the past 50 years. They also sound like I hoped music would sound in the future when I grew up, lyrical and detailed but full of great tunes and casual performances that leave all the rough elements in. To read a Belle and Sebastian lyric booklet is akin to reading a novel or a philosophy tome – to hear them is like hearing a collection of haphazard demos for the best songs you’ve never actually heard on the radio but feel you should have done. B and S are the kind of folk heroes, content to exist by word of mouth rather than sell out, that we grew to love in the late 60s and haven’t really seen since. As the band’s typically opaque sleeve-notes almost put it, they are legends in their own postal-code. And they are exactly the sort of word-of-mouth, have-you heard-the-buzz about bands that this website was set up to promote to like-minded souls, not to mention the fact that their fans pioneered what I’m doing now, using an early version of the internet to connect between fans around the globe and turn people on to pretty much the only band of the self-conscious 1990s that didn’t care what their record label or general public thought of them. I’ve also had a soft spot for the band since I even heard a single note of their music, thanks to various plugs by my old friend Record Collector Magazine (back in the days when the genius Peter Doggett was editor and it was built for genuine collectors, not people who like photos) where B and S advertised records from their own collections for sale in the classified ads. Even the album covers, you see, are wonderful, as random as Hipgnosis’ artwork for Pink Floyd, but done on a much lower budget and in a much less self-conscious way. So, in short, I have no qualms about dusting off the odd one of their records now and then for curious readers and hope that those of you who’ve loved most of the other albums on my 60s/70s list are intrigued enough to give them a try.

Things can’t last that way forever, of course. Belle and Sebastian are almost respectful among hip and trendy things nowadays, thanks to a series of three ‘mainstream’ albums with big name producers and the typically rough diamond gems of songs transformed by poppy arrangements and gutsy productions, sometimes to each songs’ merit and some to their detriment. Their albums have also declined little by little over the years, with the band’s early work standing head and shoulders over their later product (hence the fact that we’ve already discussed 1995 debut album ‘Tigermilk’ ist and the EPs from 1995-96 collection ‘Push Barman To Heal Old Wounds'). But back in their early days, back in the mid-90s when B and S were, well not that young by debut album standards (most of them were pushing 30 when debut album ‘Tigermilk’ came out and most of the members had, individually, given up their early dreams of stardom by the time the band formed) and not all that hungry (‘Tigermilk’ could have been a million seller with the right record company push behind it – instead the band put it out via their website as a limited edition of 1000) they were the band to watch, even if only a enviable handful of people had discovered them that early on.

‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’ is the band’s second and most famous album, the starting point for most fans by way of reputation even if very few of us had actually discovered the band back in 1996 on its release (I have to confess I came to the party a couple of years later, somewhere around the 'charades and drinks' stage after the main course had already been served). B and S even gave way to public demand for once, playing the album in its entirety during their concerts a few years back, in a feat they’ve never managed before or since. However even before I heard the band I'd heard of this album with its mysterious all red cover and a model whose just put down Franz Kafka's book 'The Trial'). Everyone seemed to love this album: Indie lovers, 60s music lovers, 80s music lovers, even some contemporary music lovers. In fact 'If You're Feeling Sinister' must be at least a candidate for the most discussed album of the 1990s that never actually made the charts. Ask the average music fan in the street and after passing by the first two hundred people or so (who won't have heard of the band at all, even now) chances are the next person will quote this album as his favourite.
However, strong as 'Feeling Sinister' is, poetic as the lyrics are, three-dimensional as the characters are, warm as the music is and well played as everything on the album happens to be, for me this album doesn’t have the rough-hewn charm of the early EPs or the consistency of the glorious ‘Tigermilk’. I have a theory for this: it's not that everyone thinks this second album is better - its simply that unless you were very on the ball and liked trawling websites for bands you'd never heard of back in the days when most people didn't know what the internet was then you wouldn't have known about this album. You see, most people never got to hear 'Tigermilk' in 1995 or 1996: despite being recorded and released first, it was made for a University record label where only 1000 copies were ever printed. The few that weren't sold through the University was indeed one of the world's earliest examples of website marketing (as created by Stuart David during off-time from the band and a degree). Unless you were one of the lucky 1000 people who owned the original, chances are you never got to hear 'Tigermilk' until 1999, when Jeepster finally bought up the rights to re-issue it as part of the band's longterm back catalogue. And the first EP 'Dog On Wheels', though recorded second, wouldn't be released until after 'Sinister' came out. Therefore, 'If You're Feeling Sinister' was the first time anybody really heard Belle and Sebastian and Murdoch's songwriting especially is so remarkably different and new it couldn't fail to set the world alight - even if sales trickled rather than poured in as the few people who bought it on first release told friends, family and probably their pet felines about it. Most fans disagree of course - music collecting wouldn’t be fun without a few little arguments along the way- but for me the decline of B and S starts here, as early as the second album, specifically on the second side which sounds like a bunch of leftovers from sessions for the first.

Odd as it seems for an album that never made the charts and came out on a tiny label, though, Belle and Sebastian have already done that tiny bit of selling out that made the honest verve of the first album so successful. That of course is inevitable: 'Tigermilk' was a college project recorded for fun in between exams, even if everyone secretly hoped it would become more. 'Sinister' is a more concerted effort to get a career. For a start the band signed with a 'proper' record label, Jeepster, founded by Mark Jones and Stefano D'andrea in 1995 that could sell records in actual shops and everything. The choice was a good move: Jeepster were new and hungry for talent and despite having a headquarters in London like every British record label they specialised in acts from Scotland, particularly Glasgow. Although talks took place with other bands simultaneously B and S' 'If You're Feeling Sinister' became the very first album on the label (with Snow Patrol the second act signed - talk about starting a new label with a bang!)

The other big move since 'Tigermilk' is the growth of the band. Long termers Stevie Jackson, Sarah Martin and Chris Geddes all join the band here and were clearly all good choices because they're still with the band now. At the time Stevie was hired as a sort of second focal-point for the group, having been part of another semi-big Glasgow group 'The Moonglows' before being coerced (some would say badgered!) to join the band by Murdoch (even so, it's curious that while Stevie sings from the opening song he doesn't get a composition on the album till record number three). Chris played all the tricky piano parts that Stuart couldn't cover at the same time as singing. And Sarah was simply a violin player added to beef up the string section, in the days before her vocals and songs became such an integral part of the band. Isobel also becomes a full-time member here too rather than just the singer's girlfriend, adding some lovely harmony work as well as some cello parts (she recalled in an interview years later that after so many years of being just 'the girlfriend' to musicians she was rather shocked to actually officially join a band for the first time - although like Stevie she only really comes into her own on album three). Mick Cooke, who guested on 'Tigermilk', is also officially merely a guest on this record too but has much to do here, with Murdoch now fresh from actually his ad hoc band on 'Tigermilk' eagerly seizing Cooke's trumpet parts as exactly the sort of melancholy voice he needs for the band.

However, for now, something very much stays the same: Murdoch's songwriting. This is the very last time a Belle and Sebastian project is made up entirely of Stuart's songs and, despite his typically witty sleevenotes claiming to have 'cursed work before ever actually trying it' Murdoch's hard work ethic is all over this album as the highlights of this record, as on all B and S records, are Stuart Murdoch’s hypnotic voice, hypnotic lyrics and hypnotic tune. Those who haven’t heard the band might wonder what on earth I’m on about, but hopefully fans will be nodding their head at that – Murdoch’s voice is innocence personified, even down to the deliberately left in mistakes and voice cracks, even when the lyrics are cynical and all knowing. To my mind Stuart is second only to Noel Gallagher in being able to craft rounded, lyrical songs that an audience recognises and responds to (and before all you Oasis haters go off on one, try and tell that to the crowds I saw sobbing along to Oasis songs in the mid-90s before it was ‘uncool’ to like them). As ever on these B and S albums before they started getting a bit more democratic, there’s not much sign of another ‘voice’ in the B and S group yet, which is a shame in the case of the under-rated Sarah Martin whose song ‘Family Tree’ might is one of the highlights of the whole B and S catalogue, and it is still very much Stuart’s vehicle in these early days.

We’ve said this before on our occasional looks at music from the last decade, but the problem with 1990s music isn’t that it was pompous and badly dated a few months on (as in the 1980s) or all glitz and glamour and no substance (as happened on occasion in the 1970s), but that it was split into so many categories. Back in the 60s you either liked ‘Motown’ or ‘Soul’ or ‘Merseybeat’ forming into ‘Psychedelia’ but even then there was a crossover between the three groups of fans. In the 70s and 80s there was a small number of big-time stars (Madonna, Duran Duran, Shakin’ Stevens, perhaps AAA friends The Human League for a brief time) that if you were a music collector you selected early on and then stuck by till the bitter end or if you were a more casual collector you bought the songs you liked on the radio. By the 1990s there were hundreds of genres all producing thousands of groups and nobody could have collected them all, even if they wanted to (and few people wanted to, even an anorak like me, seeing as the divisions between genres grew bigger and bigger). The real achievement of a group like Oasis was in connecting people again, being winningly catchy for the pop crowd without selling out their selves for the masses (at least, not for a while). Seemingly every group got hooked into this concept, that you had to either appeal to a mainstream audience or you had to stay true to whatever genre you found yourself in – and stay there under pain of death.
B and S are the only group to my knowledge that successfully navigated the whole of this generic mess. Their music is unusual for the period in that it doesn’t tie itself down to any particular style or genre but ties itself to its own distinctive sound, built up from gentle percussion, a bit of guitar, lots of piano, and smothering strings and occasional brass, a sound which is difficult to describe unless you’ve actually heard it. It’s the perfect backing for these quiet, whimsical songs about life’s struggling losers and under-dogs, a theme which reached its peak on ‘Tigermilk’ but can be heard here as well, culminating in the character ‘Judy’ from the first album who has transformed from a teenage rebel into a miserable depressed adult. Alas B and S drop the characters they invented for these first two albums (Lisa from the first album is mentioned here as well, although sadly Sebastian himself – clearly representing Murdoch’s hapless alter ego – is not) and the EPs so we never get to hear what happens to them afterwards. Perhaps we’ll hear on a future album, who knows?

One thing that’s always interested me about this album is the theme of sports equalling the ‘mainstream’ which starts here and follows B and S on other albums occasionally thereafter – with a runner in ‘Stars of Track and Field’ and a cyclist in ‘Fox In The Snow’ both questioning why have dedicated their lives to a ‘training’ that will probably leads to nothing in their ‘real’ future lives. Both seem to be metaphors for the working world which plays a big role on Murdoch's songs (perhaps because he couldn't experience it for himself during all his years ill in bed while his friends told him about it). The rough theme of 'If You're Feeling Sinister', then, is do what you want any way you can - because that's a reward in itself; doing things the usual way might reward you with a wage but your boss will never acknowledge and probably never notice all those extra hours you put in and sweat and toil. It could well be too that, after several years struggling for success (individually at least, Belle and Sebastian seem to have taken off remarkably quickly after getting together) and being told by various record companies that they will never ‘make it’ without jazzing up their act, this is B and S’ gentle put-down of the industry and business worlds we are all told we have to belong to. After all, the employment youth training scheme the band was formed on isn't really there to create art - it's there to get youngsters with no other futures off the streets long enough for the fat cats in suits to look good, as the sleevenotes make clear.

The other big linked 'theme' is regret. Like 'Tigermilk', many of the narrators in these songs are wishing that their lives could be different. However that album takes place in near-real time and with a third-person narrator looking on: 'Sinister' is more personal and spoken in the first person (by and large anyway; that theory falls apart on the last track I know, perhaps it was written the same time as the 'Tigermilk' songs? Sometimes the 'regret' is for other people; 'Me and the Major' is an anti-war diatribe from someone with a completely different point of view trying to understand theirs.  'Fox In The Snow' switches between pity for a fox out in the cold and a friend metaphorically facing the same: a song of regret and pity for anyone going through troubled times. 'The Boy Done Wrong' is an apology set to song (for what we never quite find out). The title track is a confessional (spoken to a minister who probably has more reason to feel guilty than the narrator and is thus a waste of time). 'Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying' is self-pity at facing a life of disaster and loss of face, regretting even being born. 'The Stars Of Track And Field' is jealousy at someone living a different kind of life tinged with the thought that sports records are there to be broken and forgotten while art is for life (or the life of a record, at least). 'Seeing Other People' is two people clearly deeply in love but unable to tell each other so they 'experiment' and chase others they don't actually fancy just because they feel that's what they 'should' be doing. Even Judy only 'dreams' about the horses that offer her the escape she needs from her lacklustre life - she doesn't have that freedom in real life and clearly regrets it. All these characters are suffering and looking for changes, but Murdoch doesn't have any answers for his listeners yet - just empathy.

Overall, then, it's easy to see why 'Sinister' caught on with the public imagination so much, even if took a long long time for word of mouth to spread. This record just sounds so different from anything else (well, except 'Tigermilk' but no one really knew that album yet) that it had to succeed and while musically timeless (and more like a record from the 60s than 90s) it captures what seems now on reflection to be the early-pre-Oasis 1990s sound so well: a period of meekness, worry and hope. Even the band don't know how long this fairytale story is going to last and Murdoch's sleevenotes are full of the same mix of meekness, worry and hope. They speak of the dole, of trials to drive busses, of art degrees that will never lead to future careers, of Chris Geddes not wanting to leave his canteen job because they've just got a new dishwashing machine that makes life easier. They speak of real life in all its shades and that is why 'If You're Feeling Sinister' is so popular an album: it's not a band on the make, ready to take over the world and dominate the charts as Oasis did. It's music as an escape and solution to problems taken up by the band to see how far they can get before picking up the pieces of the real world, going back on employment training and then signing on once more. The front cover of a girl whose just put down Kafka's 'The Trial' and is daydreaming into space rings as true as the lyrics: like that book this is the sound of a man put on trial for a crime he probably didn't commit and isn't even told what he did wrong by a society using him as a scapegoat. The band clearly feel like that too, thrown together at the deep end in one desperate attempt to escape a life in the doldrums. The brilliance of the album is that they make it: all these songs written when no one knows who the band are and couldn't care less, written from a bed that Murdoch must have thought he would never escape have a happy ending. Throughout this album the band are clearly aware that signing with a 'proper' label (albeit one that hadn't released anything by anybody yet) might be a risky decision and that chances are the band will end up back in their dull-as-ditchwater lives sometime soon. It's this we're-like-you feeling of hopelessness and frustration that appeals to people and has made 'Sinister' such a special record for many. However the sad truth is that this album's very 'success' (if you can call a non-charting album a 'success' in terms of sales) effectively ends that road: from here-on in the band and Murdoch in particular will struggle to come to terms with writing about failure while being successes. Take nothing away from this record though: like 'Tigermilk' its the glorious sound of failure and hopelessness that sounds so right, so honest and truthful and moving, that this album was always going to be a 'hit', even if took the rest of the world at least another couple of years (and a third album) to fully realise it. Enjoy it while you can.

The Songs:

This seems a good place to talk about the opening track ‘Stars Of Track And Field’. You all know the sort of people this song talks about – the so-called ‘beautiful people’, popular effortless athletes, usually rich, for whom everything in life comes easy and are spoofed several times elsewhere on the site (The Kinks’ merciless attack on ‘David Watts’ for one). However, the character’s easygoing nature merely hides the steely determination of someone adamant about getting her way and converting people to become clones of herself. The charisma even spreads to the most unlikely of candidates, with Murdoch telling us how he ‘liberated a boy I never rated’ (adding in a throwaway for my old bugbear of a town Widnes, the only place in the UK where it rains more than in Carlisle, last heard about in Paul Simon’s get-me-out-of-here-quick song ‘Homeward Bound’). To all intents and purposes, the character is a hero – until, as a sarcastic sounding Murdoch reminds us in the third verse, this super hero has to live his life with other people pulling his strings, with ‘emptiness in your training’ and the lonely, barren days with little reward. Some hero he turns out to be, especially after he started the training in order to be ‘free’ and to ‘wear your Terry underwear and feel the city air past your body’ (John Terry is a footballer, so I’m told, for those of you who, like me, avoided training sessions like the plague at school and wouldn’t know a footballer from a fish, providing both were wearing the same coloured shorts). Like many a B and S opening track (‘Tigermilk’s glorious ‘The State I Am In’ and the under-rated ‘Fold Your Hands, Child’s ‘I Fought In A War’), 'The Stars Of Track And Field' starts off so quietly it’s hard to tell at first whether your CD is actually playing or you’ve pressed the wrong button (a common hazard on my machine) and takes a full three minutes to build to full volume. This use of an under-stated opening sums up the B and S philosophy of sucking in listeners gradually rather than banging them over the head with a hook well and suits this song’s gentle pathway to success, with the track becoming distinctly overblown and out of control by the time of the last verse. Even whilst getting out all of his venom on those who outshone him in youth, however, Murdoch is gentle with his satire here – certainly compared to Ray Davies in the example above – and the listener feels sorry rather than angry at the lead character. Indeed, the song ends with a couplet about how the runner had ‘the knowledge to get her into college’ – a common Murdoch metaphor for thinking for yourself rather than as part of a pack - and how her life was wasted by the ‘empty’, pre-determined life she chose. Listen out, too, for the twist as early as the third line when the character ‘kissing girls in English at the foot of the stairs’  is revealed to be a girl, a ‘honey’, ‘with a ‘following of innocent boys’, a typical Murdoch writing trait that turns a scenario on its head and challenges our pre-conceived ideas of what the next line will be (it shows just why the ‘boys’ following her are ‘innocent’ too!) All in all, a complex but ear-catching track typical of B and S’ ambition in these early years.

‘Seeing Other People’ is the quiet highlight of the album, another subdued and almost deliberately understated song  that says so much about the narrator’s relationship with his on and off partner in just a few simple lines. The listener is, as ever, in on the realities of the situation even if the pair are in denial – reluctant to tie themselves down to a partner they are obviously in love with, each one pretends to the other that there’s is an ‘open’ relationship with both parties free to see anyone else they wish. Only, all the partners they come up with are ‘invented’ and they only have eyes for each other. It’s tempting to see this song as another in a long line of Murdoch songs about his own on-off relationship with band member Isobel Campbell, a source of inspiration for many of the band’s finest songs that reached it’s angry peak on a series of 2005 recordings (mostly B-sides) but one that’s all but been cut off now that Campbell has left the band for good. However, there’s another typically dubious line about the narrator’s sexuality with the line ‘it’s plain you’re gonna have to change or you’re gonna have to go with girls’, along with a line about covering it up with a ‘ahdn over my mouth a hand over the window’, underlining the criminally backward prejudiced mentality of people even as late as 1996 (we’re used to hearing about prejudice on the 1960s albums on this list, but it always amazes me how common the theme has been in the last couple of decades too). The lyrics to this song, then, are excellent, but it’s the tune that impresses most.  It’s full of short, snappy phrases that sound like someone having an abrupt conversation, only for the tune to run slightly ahead of itself and sounding like the narrator is letting the words run away with him and he’s revealing more about his relationship than he intends. I love the long, slow graceful piano lick on this track, which sets out the song’s theme already before a word has been sung, wandering lost up and down the keys, sounding like its coming to an end only to go off again. Murdoch again sensitively handles a quite complex set of words and the typically sympathetic B+S backing adds some lovely touches, especially the haunting string arrangements that hold one steady note while the tune around it dances, saying the un-sayable about a gay relationship neither party can admit to.  An excellent and brave song, that grows with every listen.

‘Me and The Major’ is another highlight of the record, with the liberal narrator sticking up for his peace-loving lifestyle against a battle-hardened Veteran who tars all the youth of the day with the same brush and can’t understand the idea of them having their own identities after spending so long with a monolithic-thinking regiment. In other hands this song would have been a huge anti-war diatribe but in B+S’ hands it merely sounds cheeky, complete with a huffing, puffing full-of-hot air harmonica part that enters every time the Major tries to talk. The first two verses show how little the world has moved on from the great ‘generation battles’ of the 1960s that we’ve talked a lot about on this site already, with many songs refusing to go down the same paths as their predecessors. This song shows how depressingly little has changed, with the Major convinced that press-ganging the youth into army uniforms will help turn them into ‘men’ (as we’ll hear elsewhere on this album, the whole idea of having someone doing your thinking for you is dismissed as being juvenile) and dismissing one whole generation because a small handful of them are on drugs and giving the others a bad name. The fault doesn’t lie with the young, Murdoch claims, but with the ‘elders’ who failed to learn the hard lessons of the 60s and who ‘doesn’t understand – and doesn’t try’. For such a peace-loving, quiet band there’s a real rabble-rousing feeling in the line ‘they’re taking it out on us’, with Murdoch really drawing an ‘us and them’ line and showing what side he is on. Again, though, there’s some sympathy at work on this song, with the Major shown to be living alone, swapping his ‘tent’ of freedom with sheltered accommodation where he becomes just another anonymous citizen without any rights – like the very youngsters he is attacking. Murdoch at his angriest, with a fast pace unusual for the typically laidback B+S, with Murdoch saving his biggest venom for the line about class, with the classic pay off ‘when I get stuck in a lift it’s always with a toff who looks down on me like I was never born’ – even though both are equal in their predicament.

‘Like Dylan In The Movies’ is a curious track, starting off with a typical B+S retro rock and roll riff that wouldn’t be out of sorts on an early Elvis record, before sweeping strings and piano come in and take the song to a completely different place. The words are among the strangest on the record, with the line about Dylan referring to the slow moody I’m-not-looking back glance given by the actors in Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid (for which Dylan does the soundtrack). It all sounds very romantic and lovely, but it’s actually a serious warning about what less respectable people than the character in the song might be after and is about the darker, dangerous world of sex – and not the sanitised account we see in films at all. The story follows Lisa, a troubled soul from the ‘Tigermilk’ record, whose own experiences in life thus far have consisted of being ‘used’ by teachers, laughed at by fellow pupils and a series of embarrassing sexual experiences. Murdoch always has a real affection for his characters and just as he tells Lisa not to ‘worry’ and that she is ‘not alone’ on the first album, here he tells the now sexually active Lisa to beware of the men who are now interested in her and not to mistake their sudden interest in her for life. By the last line, it’s also hinted that Lisa is now working as a prostitute, a far reach for the character starved of human contact in her earliest songs. The narrator may himself be a customer (his first line to her is ‘take a tip from me’), although he’s of the kind, worried sort concerned about her safety last heard on this list on The Who’s ‘Trick Of The Light’ (see review no 72). Murdoch drops his brotherly warnings on the fourth verse, comforting his favourite character with the thoughts that she is not alone and that ‘you’re worth the trouble and you’re worth the pain – if we all went back to another time, I would love you over’. As you can tell, this is a very complex song, switching from the sudden rush of adrenalin courtesy of the song’s central riff to a sort of soporific sound, courtesy of the strings and echoey pianos, as if the whole thing is some sort of nasty dream. It’s certainly not what we imagined the outcome of the character from the song ‘She’s Losing It’ to be which suits this sometimes nasty but ultimately hopeful little song. Listen out too for a typical B+S ‘mistake’ left into the finished product: the violin ‘squeal’ when the strings come in at the wrong place about a minute or so before the end.

‘Fox In The Snow’ is, in its third verse at least, a return to the ‘athlete’ in training song heard in the opening track, but this time the mix of anger, envy and sympathy has been rejected for a purely sympathetic look at the life of a cyclist. Although it’s very obviously a ballad, this lovely song does have a repetitive rhythm that mimics well the sound of a cyclist repeating his training sessions and developing his technique over and over, underlying the boring routine he has. Asking why he carries on with legs ‘black and blue’ – because ‘it’s not as if they’re paying you’ – the narrator is clearly concerned for the athlete, adding the memorable line that even though he’s going up and down hills emotionally he is ‘going nowhere’. The sudden snowfall, heard affecting different people in the different verses of the song, is a metaphor for some sudden problem that comes out of nowhere, making their hard routines that bit harder. If I remember rightly, the snowfall of 1995-96 was pretty bad – the worst for quite a while (it even got us a day off school that year so it must have been bad for that to happen!) so it’s easy to imagine Stuart Murdoch the writer keeping his eyes out for what was happening to the people around him. The other verses are a bit more cryptic, with each of the four dealing with a different character caught out by a sudden snowfall. The first is about a fox – a running gag from the band which is often heard in the monologues made for the band by Stuart David (who also records his own records under the pseudonym ‘Looper’). The second is a girl caught in a troubled situation – we never find out what, although it sounds very like the pregnant teen from the band’s EP song ‘Lazy Line Painter Jane’ – covering up her situation with a false laugh and looking to books for advice rather than admit to her friends and family she has a problem. Only in the fourth verse do we have a character who isn’t down and out and this time its a child playing in the snow and enjoying every minute of it – although even this song ends with the warning that it’s the highlight of your life after only birth and ‘dying too’ and that  ‘it only happens once a lifetime, make the most of it!’ The result is an elusive but utterly beautiful song, with the band’s single most depressing lyric matched to a tune so lovely and uplifting the listener truly doesn’t know what to make of it all.

So far the first side of ‘Sinister’ has been exemplary, building on the impressive sonic sound of ‘Tigermilk’ and adding to it a much more polished and ‘tighter’ sound. Alas, things go downhill on the second side, which is generally just the band without the horn or string section and as a result sounds like the simple home demos of the ‘Push Barman’ compilation without the charm of the rough edges or the delight of hearing magic being made clumsily but enthusiastically before our ears. ‘Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying’ is a case in point, with a sing songy melody that only shines when it suddenly folds in on itself and switches from major to minor keys and lyrics that are by far the simplest and most generic heard so far, although seen in a certain light this song is fascinating. The narrator of the song is lonely, afraid and panicking over something we never hear about, on his own ‘after hours’ on a bus. As time wears on its clear that, rather than using a character as he so often does on B+S records, Murdoch is talking about himself. The song opens with the realisation that ‘nobody writes songs anymore’ that sum up the hopelessness of the narrator’s current situation so Murdoch decides the writer ‘might as well be me’, putting down on paper his thoughts about the band. Telling us that we have a choice in life, that ‘you could either be successful – or be us!’, Murdoch is actually talking to himself here and wondering whether B+S’ growing career ought to be channelled properly through a major record company or whether the band should continue as the ramshackle but loved band they were. Dismissing most of his already great catalogue of sympathetic loner characters, Murdoch tells us he’ll just write ‘the same old story’ about ‘a boy who’s just like me’ and ‘thought there was love in everything and everyone’ (‘you’re so naive!’ he turns on himself, dropping his pretence at talking about another character) before criticising his own art with the line ‘oh, that wasn’t what I meant to say at all!’  For what should be such a sad and angry song, with Murdoch wondering whether his work is really worth the fuss or not, it’s not half a jolly, sprightly song, taken at quite a fast lick compared to the other tracks on the record, perhaps as if Murdoch is spoofing his own trademark at writing sad but uplifting songs. The result isn’t a song you’d want to play too often and doesn’t have the staying power of the earlier songs on the record, but in the context of B+S’ catalogue it’s a fascinating and revealing song, with Murdoch ending with the oh so true observation that even if he can’t be the hero in his life at least ‘I could make you cry with these words’.

‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’ itself is an oddball track, even for Belle and Sebastian. It’s another juxtaposition of painful, hurt-ridden lyrics matched with a rattling pop tune but one that works less well than elsewhere, leaving the listener feeling truly schizophrenic by the end of it! The opening character – Anthony – won’t be heard of again until 2005 when he becomes the target of many a school bully, but here he’s out of the picture in just five lines, committing suicide out of ‘boredom’. Like ‘Tigermilk’, every character on this track is suffering because they’re daring to be ‘different’ and staying apart from the status quo – but this time around the stakes are higher, with each character choosing to end their life rather than suffer the indignities of life in the then-modern world. The only way out seems to be by becoming a TV celebrity, rescuing yourself from poverty and a meaningless existence at the cost of your sanity and having your private life picked over by the people ‘watching on the telly’. What a choice, Murdoch seems to be saying, although he saves his biggest anger for the mainstream’s answer to everyone’s problems, sending them to church to see a Minister. But they don’t have the answers for the modern age, with the character Hilary finding that the talk of saints doesn’t ‘interest’ and that, in one of Murdoch’s best lines, all she wants to know is ‘how and why and when and where to go/where to follow’. These characters are directionless, unwilling to submit themselves to the grinning falsehood niceties of the capitalist world but not being sure what to use as a substitute. Round and round in circles it goes, with Murdoch unable to offer a solution to ‘take away the pain of being a hopeless unbeliever’. Alas, the song is simply too complex to take in at first, with one of the bounciest melodies Murdoch ever wrote for once a poor substitute for a ‘proper’ melody which complements rather than contradicts the sentiments. The opening sounds of children pkaying were taped by Murdoch on a portable tape recorder while on a walk around Glasgow - the band 'think' it was the school that became 'the gaelic one on Berkley Street' when quizzed about it later on their website.

‘Mayfly’ is the album’s half-hearted attempt at writing a pop single, although to the best of my knowledge B and S didn’t start releasing singles until the millennium. Taken on its own terms, it’s a lovely little song that’s very similar to Paul McCartney’s ‘Single Pigeon’ (from the ‘Red Rose Speedway’ album), with an insect rather than a bird the only companion keeping a lonely narrator company. The song has a lovely catchy melody, a million miles removed from the moody songs of the album’s first side and an ear-catching instrumental break played on what sounds like the simplistic synthesiser predecessor the ‘stylograph’ from the 1960s as advertised by Rolf Harris! The arrangement is nice, too, with guitars and organ work complementing Murdoch’s scratchy voice and Sarah Martin’s sweet harmonies. Where this song goes wrong in its rather hurried, haphazard air, as if the band are trying to get rid of what, for them, is quite a shallow and simple song out of the way for the record company so they can go back to making ‘proper’ music! While it’s not the best song here by a long chalk, having none of the depth or beauty of the first few tracks, it’s a shame the band didn’t spend just a tad more time working on the performance side of things as the melody, particularly, is quite lovely.

 My favourite song among the simpler pieces on the album’s second side is undoubtedly ‘The Boy Done Wrong Again’. In ‘Dying’ we looked at how Murdoch undermined his own credibility with a throwaway song about him writing the same old stuff. ‘The Boy’ is that idea writ large, with the surely autobiographical line that ‘All I wanted was to sing the saddest songs’ and one of the most mournful melodies and vocals of his career. The theme of the song is one that will surely be understood by every AAA reader, the times in our life when everything seems to be going right and we get too sure of ourselves, only to see one single thoughtless comment or thought come back to bite us. Stevie Jackson, whose presence isn’t felt much on this album, sings the counter lines to Murdoch’s misery, intoning like a demon headmaster how the narrator has messed things up yet again in his life while the poor hapless narrator pleads tries to allay his guilt in all sorts of ways, recognising that the ‘shine’ of his victim puts his ‘to shame’. The string arrangement on this track is thought to be cloying by some fans and I know what they mean, because it’s certainly more obtrusive on this track than elsewhere on this album, but to these ears its the very overdone dripping melancholy in this track that makes it work. The piece ends on the uplifting thought that things will only go right again if the listener understands and recognizes the sentiments, agreeing to ‘sing along’ and thus freeing the narrator of the fear that he’s the only person in the world whose ever felt like this. Of course, we’ve all felt like that too at one stage or another and Murdoch is at his observational best here, reminding us of all the times we’ve been in the same boat.

For such a ‘classic’ album ‘Sinister’ doesn’t half end on an unsure note. ‘Judy And The Dream Of Horses’ is a return to the character-driven tales of ‘Tigermilk’, but this time around the character has changed, grown older and sadder and not all the interesting if flawed heart-of-gold mischievous rebel of before. It’s as if the world has gotten a hold of the beloved character and made her conform – an absolute no-no in the B+S universe. The sexual chemistry of the earlier songs have by now given way to a worldly wise character who knows that, even before they do anything, she will be ‘disappointed’ by the narrator. Murdoch isn’t ready to let his character go, however, telling her that if she ever falls into a depressed state all she has to do is writer about her life and use her creative gifts and her old world will be revealed to her again: an act that, peculiarly, he likens to having a dream about horses (erm, because they best represent our idea of being ‘free’? I’m not sure on that one, especially as horses are mankind’s earliest domesticated friend). The tune of this track, with its rolling catchy horn lick which gradually gets out of breath as the song wears on, is a memorable one but for once on this album the lyrics can’t match the content and the whole song ends up as a rather frustrating mess.

Still, the vast majority of ‘Sinister’ is deserving of this album’s accolades, managing the rare achievement of being brave and original without being off-putting or unlistenable. Murdoch’s gifts as a songwriter were at their peak in the 1995-96 years and his long list of characters on this album are among his most sympathetic and believable, suffering from a wide range of troubles and tribulations the listener can sympathise with. Where this album falls down is with its consistency, with ‘Sinister’ seeming to run of steam and things to say far quicker than ‘Tigermilk’ and, even as early as this second album, repeating ground the band had covered before. But, as with all Belle and Sebastian records, this album will always be special because it provides a ‘voice’ for those otherwise don’t have one and is the perfect antidote to the days when you feel isolated and out of sorts with a world that normally doesn’t care. So if you’re feeling sinister, don’t run off and see a minister (well, not unless you want to of course), you’ll probably be better off if you stay in and listen to this record (while reading Alan’s Album Archives at the same time, of course!)  

A Now Complete Link Of Belle and Sebastian Articles Available To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:
‘Fold Your Hands, Child, You Walk Like A Peasant’ (2001)
'Storytelling' (2002)

'Push Barman To Open Old Wounds' (EP compilation 2003)

'Dear Catastrophe Waitress' (2004)
'The Life Pursuit' (2006)

'Write About Love' (2010)
'God Help The Girl' (Stuart Murdoch Film) (2014)
Girls In Peace Time Just Want To Dance (2015)

Belle and Sebastian: Existing TV Clips
Belle and Sebastian: 12 Unreleased Songs
Belle and Sebastian: Non-Album Songs
Belle and Sebastian: Solo/Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums
Essay: B and S Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

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