Belle and Sebastian “The Boy With The Arab Strap” (1998)
It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career/Sleep The Clock Around/Is It Wicked Not To Care?/Ease Your Feet Into The Sea/A Summer Wasting/Seymour Stein//A Space Boy Dream/Dirty Dream Number Two/The Boy With The Arab Strap/Chickfactor/Simple Things/The Rollercoaster Ride
Back in 1998 Belle and Sebastian were the ‘next big thing’, the group that everyone with half an ear on the music scene knew was coming even if they still thought B+S were a singing duo like Rene and Renato rather than a Scottish Indie band named after a Children’s TV show about a boy and his dog. Their first album ‘Tigermilk’ might have been an internet-orders-only album (back in the day when few people actually knew what the internet was), but it made enough of a splash to get noticed by the music press and record label Jeepster sold enough copies to make second album ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’ worthwhile. In the end that album made even more of a splash and suddenly B+S were on everybody’s lips, despite not selling that many lyrics, putting in only a few delightfully amateurish performances along the way and the band themselves not actually wanting to draw much attention to themselves. Compare B+S’ publicity campaign to, say, The Spice Girls and its non existent – like all the best music its spread by word of mouth, cult radio playlists and ecstatic bordering on messianistic reviews in music magazines and sites like this one. So why, with everything going for them, did the band end up disappearing back into the cultish end of the record markets, the darlings of a few faithful rather than a mainstream audience?
We’ve talked a lot about ‘difficult third album syndrome’ before on this site, the theory that a band’s first album is crafted over a period of years by unknowns, the second is rushed off in a matter of weeks under the adrenalin rush of the success of the first and by the third album the creative well is running dry and made to increasingly pressured deadlines. We’ve mentioned too that by album three a songwriter is often distanced by fame, money and success from the very people he or she get their source material from. However, that isn’t strictly the case with ‘The Boy With The Arab Strap’ because it was the band themselves that made things difficult. ‘Arab Strap’ is not a weird album and it’s certainly not a poor album, but there’s so many changes in mood and style from their previous two works, with new vocalists, songwriters and genres included, that its hard for even longterm fans to navigate, never mind excite new ones. In short, this is Belle and Sebastian’s most non-mainstream album at a time when, more than any other, they were in danger of becoming mainstream.
And I use the word ‘danger’ here deliberately – some bands thrive of fame, money, success and – most of all - attention (Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones to some extent), but Belle and Sebastian never stood for any of these, merely a hippie-like connection with their audience and enough success and understanding to get the chance to make another record.. The truth is, had this album made the big time then the B+S dream of obscurity and nonchalance would have been over, with the band simply another load of indie wannabes who got lucky and lost their innocence and uniqueness the minute they hit the big time. More than most songwriters Stuart Murdoch absolutely has to stay true to his ‘ordinary people’ songwriting guise and like many a writer before him faced the decision of whether to stay in the shadows, possibly struggling in the name of art or get into the limousine and lock the doors, accepting that they’ll never be the person they once were. Most bands, however strong, make the second decision – fame is a fickle beast and doesn’t come around calling very often and few people are brave enough to make the decision to keep it bay. Yet that’s exactly what Belle and Sebastian decidedly do with this third album.
There’s one song here, ‘Seymour Stein’ by bandmate Stevie Jackson, about exactly that: the vice-president of Warner Brothers tried to persuade B+S to leave their low budget Indie label to join his conglomerate in America where they would be the next big thing, only for the band to give him the cold shoulder, noting that as he’d never been to Scotland before meeting them there would be no way he’d understand them. Unlike some record label bosses Stein wasn’t talking vainly when he put that offer on the table either – his adventurous ears had already led to him giving artists like Madonna, The Smiths, The Pretenders and Echo and the Bunnymen their big break. B+S rate at least two of these bands as key influences (see if you can work out which two!) and Stein’s offer must have been thrilling for music buff Murdoch in particular and it says much for the band’s strength of character that despite everything they still say no to Stein, staying outlaws on the outskirts of the music business. It’s notable that the band don’t say no a second time, signing with Rough Trade for their last couple of albums after a rocky eight years or so after this album in 2005, but that shouldn’t take away from the courage of the original decision.
Throughout this album fame lurks around the shadows like a wild beast, ready to pounce on the unsuspected. The album opens with the amazingly bleak ‘It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career’ in which two separate young up and coming businessmen are so riled and overwhelmed by stress their bodies suffer strokes that leave them helpless and old before their time, trying so hard to become a respected middle aged adult that they neglect their youth. Murdoch then offers one of his greatest ‘working class’ songs on the title track, recording every sight he sees on a doom-laden bus journey full of drunks and layabouts with nothing else to do, where ‘nobody gives you a chance or a dollar in this old town’. The narrator of that song even spends the fourth verse speaking to ‘crowds assembled’, talking to them about ‘the way they are feeling’ – and it’s hard to see this as anything but Murdoch the writer thinking about his influences and the way he mirrors the misfits of life in his songs. ‘Dirty Dream Number 2’ sums up this new philosophy in its opening couplet: ‘I’m lucky, I can open the door and I can walk down the street – unlucky I’ve got nowhere to go and so I follow my feet’, speculating about the lack of oppressive fame in the first and lack of attention in the second lines. In case we haven’t got the message yet the album ends with ‘Rollercoaster Ride’, a song about the ups and downs of life with the central message that we ought to enjoy it now because ‘it’ll be gone tomorrow’. That denial of Seymour Stein wasn’t a shyness about the band’s work or even a hip statement by a with-it young band; it’s the commitment of a group who want to embrace their worst failings (that would undoubtedly have been tidied up by a record label, as Rough Trade do for better or worse in the 00s) and keep in touch with their audiences and inspiration.
The other theme on this record is the opposite: of care-free summer days with nothing to do but relax, take it easy and discover yourself more. Most B+S songs are themeless, in the sense that Murdoch’s cast of characters all seem to belong together and often appear in more than one song but aren’t all specifically doing the same thing or thinking the same thoughts. However ‘Arab Strap’ features four whole songs about being lazy, all sequenced together at the end of the album’s first side (not that anybody would have owned this album on anything but CD given the 1998 vintage, but the band still ‘split’ their songs in two on the rear sleeve, like the days of old!) I’m taking a guess here but I would say that the creative freedom that blossomed from saying ‘no’ to the big record company guys must have reminded Murdoch of his childhood summers of having nothing to do and nowhere to go, as if he was ‘free’ to enjoy his music all over again. There’s a contrast, too, with the sad lives of the bed-ridden characters of ‘Brilliant Career’, lives cut short far too soon because of city-based pressure and commitment; here there’s nothing you can do for money or job satisfaction that’s as important as discovering yourself and the world around you. Far from being ‘true’ lazy songs in the manner of Ray Davies (who wrote the best songs about doing nothing) and Brian Wilson, Murdoch’s (and Campbell’s) characters are still up to lots, coming up with their wittiest and most insightful takes on life despite wasting summers and easing their feet in the sea. There’s a very revealing ‘mistake’ left in on Murdoch’s vocal for ‘A Summer Wasting’ where his chorus line of ‘seven weeks of river walkways, seven weeks of feeling guilty...’ becomes ‘seven years of staying up all night’ – approximately the time he’d spent trying to get into music (he abandoned the idea in the early 90s to take a business studies course, only to meet the rest of the first line up of the band here and make ‘Tigermilk’ as part of his business studies coursework!)
The third and final theme of the album is far more common and in fact can be traced from the first note B+S recorded to the last. The B+S moniker is outlined as early as the band’s first LP and features one troubled soul trying to impress another, sometimes gaining and sometimes losing across the space of a song. There’s less evidence of that partnership on this record than most – a partnership that we’ve speculated before was about Murdoch and Campbell’s relationship, the ‘story’ having been told in the past tense ever since she left the band in 2002 – but there are still several developments key to B+S watchers. ‘Simple Things’ is among the most basic, most straightforward songs Murdoch had yet written and is highly revealing – ‘his’ character promises to be there anytime, day or night, for Belle, but in return she has to show she ‘feels’ something. After the flush of love on the first two albums Sebastian is getting impatient, imagining her becoming old before she admits her love for him (imagining ‘blue veins’ on her arm in the scariest passage in the record) and accusing her of not taking an interest (he memorably ends tghe song by persuading her to ask ‘a thousand questions in triplicate’). Other songs have Sebastian’s eyes wander for the first time – light years away from the character’s obsession with only Belle on ‘Tigermilk’ and ‘Sinister’, eyeing waitresses on the title track and having ‘dirty dreams’ (If you accept the ‘other’ band members songs as part of the same narrative then Stevie Jackson’s ‘Chickfactor’ finds Sebastian meeting up with all sorts of girls on a New York holiday). As for Campbell’s first published song – and her first chance to comment on the narrative – in ‘Is It Wicked Not To care?’ her character is really confused what to do, loving the drama but afraid of the responsibility of the relationship. She calms things down with the admission that if she had more than one life to live she would ‘love you in a sequel’, agreeing with Sebastian that ‘it’s not fun to watch the rust grow’ and that one of them should do something before ending cruelly that she’s noticed his wandering eye and asking ‘is there someone else instead?’
Before we’re in danger of becoming too much like Eastenders, we’ll go back to what we do know about this record. One thing that Belle and Sebastian would undoubtedly have sacrificed had they signed with Warner Brothers is their quirkyness. Lots of previous B+S EP tracks come with completely left-of-centre songs about a whole host of ridiculous topics and some of them (by Stuart David) are loopy spoken word monologues about nothing and everything, a world away from the insightful melodic work of Murdoch (have a look at our review for the EP collection ‘Push Barman To Heal Old Wounds’, with songs about the upper classes eating pasties, canines on wheels and Elvis being re-incarnated as a dog – these songs are among the most normal). However by and large the two actual LPs B+S have released till now have been surprisingly sensible by comparison, still distinctive and original with more words per verse than most bands use an album, but slightly less batty and more universal in outlook. Furthermore till now Murdoch has been the chief singer and chief writer on every album track, with harmony spots for B+S other two vocalists Isobel Campbell, Sarah Martin and Stevie Jackson. Had the band gone onto Warner Brothers they’d no doubt have asked the band to keep it that way and might even have limited the band’s quirkyness on their EP and single tracks. ‘Arab Strap’ makes full use of these different voices within the band, both in a writing and vocal sense and seems to delight in the fact that, having turned their first big offer down, the band go back to being even more Belle and Sebastian like than ever.
However, Murdoch’s coming to the end of an admirable purple patch that will see him write easily the best songs of the decade. Campbell’s, Jackson’s and even David’s latest genre-defying monologue are all good, memorable pieces with a right to be on the album – but Murdoch’s hitting his stride and is, frankly, too good to properly fulfil this album’s remit of creating a truly eccentric record that no other record label would dare release. In fact most record labels of the time would have given their vinyl-shifting arms to be able to release songs as strongest as Murdoch’s best work on the album (‘Brilliant Career’ ‘Sleep The Clock Around’ and ‘Rollercoaster Ride’ especially) and Stein must have looked on enviously at at least half this album when it came out. All of which means this album is a bit of an uneasy hybrid, with all those new voices to get used to and jerking uncomfortably between moments of poetic tuneful bliss and completely bonkers left-field experiments. Had the band released this as two separate records or even as an album and another EP they’d have been onto something – but that of course is what record bosses like Warner Brothers would have said too and that would have got in the way of the creative freedom B+S stand for and as a reviewer I’m kind of glad they made this third record like this, sticking up for their creative boundaries. Unfortunately as a fan it makes the whole record a bit of an uneasy listen, a bit like listening to one of those ‘now that’s what I called music back then because it was in fashion but I hate its guts now’ compilations that’s a pot pourri of everything or being served breakfast, lunch and tea all at the same time on the same plate.
That’s a shame given that the first two albums blew people away most because of their consistency (there’s only one bad track on ‘Tigermilk’ and that’s another dodgy sound experiment with the other nine songs are all among the best songs the band ever made; ‘Sinister’ isn’t far behind on all eleven tracks), but ‘Arab’s strongest moments are still superb. Even the best authors take whole novels to paint the pictures of songs like ‘Brilliant Career’ and the title track in a handful of verses, full of poignant images about ‘modern life’ that use words you simply don’t get in music made by any other band (‘Squalor’ ‘lascivious’ ‘clientele’ ‘pharmaceuticals’) that nevertheless fit the scenes perfectly. The sounds of this album are extraordinary too – sadly the rollicking electric guitar that dominated ‘Tigermilk’ is long gone by this period but the mix of brass, strings, drums and piano are joined by such variations as bagpipes, mouthorgan and a moog synthesiser. There’s even something that sounds like a drill on second track ‘Sleep The Clock Around’ , which suggests the band have been listening to too many strange Beach Boys albums! Even without the words, this is a very colourful album that always seems to be changing hues, from the cold dark austere opening of ‘Career’ to the warm summer sunshine of ‘Ease Your Feet In The Sea’ and ‘A Summer Wasting’.
One final mention, about the packaging. Murdoch actually appears on the album cover – for the only time on his own – with what looks like a wooden spoon sticking out of his side in a ‘mock’ death gesture. We’ve already included this album cover in our top ten ‘what the heck is going on’ cover sleeves in news and views 99 – my only take on it is that the band are ‘messing about’ somewhere in a field as a sort of pictorial depiction of the ‘summer wasting’ of the album’s theme. I still don’t know why it’s been tinted green, however. As for that curious title (both song and album), B+S were actually paying homage to a fellow band of that name who had been supporting them during their chaotic British tours and probably figured it would give them a bit of publicity. Unfortunately the kind gesture backfired as the band claimed their name was used ‘without permission’ and they probably secretly resented the fact B+S were in a position to help them out. In fact the rumour went around for years that this album was a collaboration between the two groups (although, surely, fans must have wondered why B+S’ name was so small compared to their lesser known colleagues?) On simply a practical level every time you write ‘the boy with the arab strap’ into a search engine you get sites about B+S (as well as some dodgy Ann Summers type shops!), not the band.
So, all in all, is ‘The Boy With The Arab Strap’ a good album? Yes it is. Even though its far less consistent than the albums before it (and one or two that follow) and even though the switches between singers and genres is handled with far less aplomb than later attempts, there’s still something compelling and revealing about even the weakest songs here. An album made wholeheartedly for fans of the band, from the rejection of the multi-million corporations on down, ‘Arab’ has much to interest people with a vested interest in the characters in these songs and it sounds lovely for the most part too, full of some of Murdoch’s most beautiful melodies and wittiest lyrics. Surely the only reason fans don’t love this album as much as the first two is simply that those two albums are so, so good that nothing can compare – even 75% of the way there type albums like this one.
‘It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career’ is the song on the album most closely related to the sound and style of the first two albums (especially the opening tracks of both which also start with one quiet line and build a head of steam from there) and it’s one of the best tracks on the album too. Murdoch and Jackson’s contrasting bleak and sweet harmonies are at their best here on a song about career pressures and destroyed lives and the sweeping melody is one of Murdoch’s best too, though the lyrics are still the song’s best feature. All three lengthy verses of this song (like many a B+S record there’s no chorus as such) feature young high flyers who have the world at their feet before all that workload and worry causes each of them to have a stroke, narrowing their world to the four corners of the same room. Few writers can be as empathetic as Murdoch at his best (only Ray Davies comes close) and he excels himself here on all three verses. The first harks back to the classic EP track ‘Lazy Line Painter Jane’, but instead of giving up her ‘life’ to have a baby she didn’t want this character is run out of town for being a ‘rebel’, forced to work that bit harder to get the world’s attention. The second verse is a struggling artist forced to work at Safeways to cover the money her paintings don’t make, pining away as she makes way for lesser artists with better connections. The third verse is a feisty, fiery character who fires all his co-workers so he can do the job himself – only for his perfectionist ways to catch up with him and leave him with a stroke, relying on the people he’s just fired simply to live. The fate of all three characters is delivered matter of factly, as if the outcome of their lives was never in doubt but is related with such a sad, sighing melodic line that its clear where Murdoch’s sympathies lie. Stark and dark, this song is far nastier than most B+S songs, but no worse for that giving this often frivolous and escapist album a gravitas and depth it might not otherwise have had. As with ‘Tigermilk’ and ‘Sinister’ it’s also very brave starting an album with a song that starts in such a modest, quiet way.
‘Stop The Clock Around’ is another strong song and a second straight song about hard work – this time more autobiographical, with the narrator under pressure to come up with a song (was this album written to tighter deadlines than the first two?) This song is far more oddly constructed, however, even for an eccentric writer like Murdoch. Most of the lyrics are gabbled so fast they’re difficult to follow without the lyric sheet and notably they read more like a book, with a rhyming scheme that’s all over the place (the first four lines, for instance, don’t rhyme with each other or the rest of the song). It’s as if the method of getting ‘inspiration’ isn’t important as long as the end product works (which, thankfully, it does). The song is sung by Stuart and Isobel together – a rare occasion which suggests that this is one of their more ‘autobiographical’ songs (most of the first two albums and EPs are about their relationship), but it’s actually more about Stuart (aka Sebastian) alone, with the pressures of the band resting on his shoulders. Like the last track there’s a kind of hurried, rushed feel about the arrangement which is played rather fast by B+S standards and features a bagpipe accompaniment which in context sounds like the angry ring of an alarm clock, urging the narrator on to his hard work. In fact most of the song concerns Murdoch’s narrator desperately trying to write something, chastising himself for his empty mind (‘Look at yourself, you’re no use to anyone’) and going through all his songwriting ‘tricks’ (taking pills, reading old love letters, going on walks through familiar neighbourhoods and a book signing. The actual inspiration, that finally blossoms the song into full bloom, is an unlikely source, an overheard conversation where a member of public exclaims ‘there’s a lot to be done while your head is still young...’ However Murdoch argues here that hard work is not enough – he’s at his most inspired when he’s relaxed and not under pressure to come up with anything (‘If you put down your pen...the memory will shine’). Thankfully the song has a happier ending than the last song, Murdoch finding that ‘everyone got paid, everybody is happy’ and his reward is not to enjoy the money or the artistic freedom this gives him, but to ‘sleep the clock around’. A word too about the sumptuous arrangement for the song which, in keeping with the lyrics, is one of the band’s busiest: Mick Cooke’s trumpet playing is superb and amongst his best work for the band, a half bugle call alarm clock and half a glowing wisp of inspiration, while the band add in all sorts of sound effects such as a drill and saw to add to the ‘work’ theme of the track (a trick they probably nicked from Brian Wilson’s still then-unissued ‘Smile’).
From hereon in the album gets quieter and more languid, starting with Campbell’s first ever song for the band ‘Is It Wicked Not To Care?’ More conventional than Murdoch’s work, it still features some very poetic lyrics about, well, not caring what others think of you basically. The song switches rapidly between being first person and third and is clearly directed to someone to hurry up a bit before a romance is dead. The song turns sharply in its second verse to one of loathing, though whether it’s of herself (‘Belle’), Murdoch (‘Sebastian’) or someone else in unclear. Still, it’s pretty harsh by B+S standards, damning someone for being ‘false’, ‘wearing rags to make you pretty by design, rusting armour for effect’ and telling the un-named person to stop acting and get on with it because ‘it will all be over when you’re dead’. The fascinating thing about this song is that these harsh lyrics about being too slow at love are set against a lovely, lilting, relaxed melody so fragile it nearly isn’t there at all (if we can believe all of Murdoch’s ‘love’ songs are written for Campbell then he certainly got her hidden feistiness spot on). There’s one truly great line here too, about the narrator not having time to mess around waiting for someone who may or may not love her and wishing there could be a ‘sequel’ to this life the pair could commit to to find out if their romance works or not (‘If there was a sequel would you love me like an equal, would you love me till I’m dead?’) This time round its B+S’ string section’s chance to excel and Martin’s work is lovely, far more suitable to the band’s work than an outside violinist would have been, proud but mournful and a good match for the epitaph-like lyrics. Not up to the best songs on the album, but Campbell’s far too good a songwriter to have gone unheard across so many years (the fact that she released four albums in the three years after she left the band in 2001 suggests she had a lot of leftover material that never made it to B+S albums, almost all of it wolf-in-sheeps clothing songs like this one).
‘Ease Your Feet In The Sea’ is Murdoch’s song of relaxation and seems to be almost a spoof of his normally paranoid, restless, thoughtful characters with lines like ‘Soberly, without regret, I make another sandwich’ and the song’s big hook on the line ‘everything’s going wrong’. It’s a curious song this one, not quite as ear-catching as Murdoch’s usual work and sounds as if two songs have been stapled together in the middle, switching between a relaxed summer’s day of nothing and the worry that the narrator has let someone down. At first this song seems to be about having the patience to make a final decision, weighing up options to see which are best and then taking the plunge (‘It’s an emergency, there’s no more ‘wait and see’). Coming so soon after Campbell’s first song for the band I’m tempted to see the last two verses as being Murdoch’s offer of support to his friend, the song ending with a character who gives her time generously to others but is never noticed for her good deeds (‘Whose seeing you at all?’) He doesn’t feel free of guilt either, acknowledging ‘ I left you dry’ and that ‘the signs were clear that you aren’t going anywhere at all’ and desperately trying to work out the best thing to do, looking for the ‘truth’ of the matter in ‘everyone’s faces (possibly the band’s). There’s a great Spanish guitar part from the ever-underused Stevie Jackson that adds a flamenco flourish to the song, but otherwise everything else on this track sounds recycled from somewhere else (especially the violin part).
‘A Summer Wasting’ is a song about carefree summer days so close in spirit and style to the 70s Kinks that I could well believe it was a Ray Davies outtake. The song is bouncy and enthusiastic – something of a rarity for this rather sombre album – and harks back to ‘Clock Around’ by showing how any time spent having fun can never be time ‘wasted’. The song harks back to school holiday summers with its chorus of ‘seven weeks...’ with some marvellous lines about going for walks, reading papers, staying up late and ‘feeling guilty’ for not getting anything accomplished (all he has to show for his seven weeks off are memories and a couple of photographs). Murdoch’s narrator shouldn’t feel guilty however – this song is all about the freedom of being away from pressure and ‘feeling free’, recharging batteries for harder times to come. Suitably the song is one of B+S’ simplest pieces, a catchy slice of pop with a memorable opening and closing verse (‘Summer in Winter, Winter in Springtime, you hear the birds sing, everything will be fine’) that bookends the track like the start and finish of a true holiday. The only thing that mars this song slightly is Murdoch’s rather nasal vocal – I don’t think any B+S fan would want to hear this band all polished and slick but this song might have sounded better still after another couple of takes, as Murdoch all but speak-sings his lyrics at points.
The first side of the album ends with Stevie Jackson’s first song for the band, ‘Seymour Stein’, a glorious tale – or should that be parable as that’s the way it’s sung - of the band giving short shrift to a record company offer to become ‘stars’. Poor Seymour – quite apart from being christened with that name (causing many a fan to think this is another of B+S’ sexual songs) he flies all the way from LA with the clout of Warner Brothers behind him to sign the band because he believes in them – and half the band don’t even show up to the meeting. ‘I heard dinner went well, you liked Chris’ jacket...sorry I missed you, have a nice flight home!’ Jackson drawls to one of the slowest and least commercial accompaniments in B+S canon, the sort of song no one but B+S would ever have written. This is still a beautiful song, however, especially with a classic middle eight that adds just the weight and power to this laidback song. Jackson recounts all the places Stein passed just to travel to the band in Scotland and the limousines he hired to drive in, but says none of that travelling is good enough if Stein has ‘never seen Dundee’ and so doesn’t understand the band’s neighbourhood and background. The lines about Stein starting his journey ‘half a world away’ aren’t just geographic detail, they’re evidence of the huge difference in salary, mindset and background between the two halves. The harder Stein tries to impress the group with ‘promises of fame, promises of fortune’, the less likely the notoriously media shy, ordinary people-centred B+S are going to say yes. The song ends with Stein, disappointed, flying back home to the sound of a jet aeroplane to the sound of the band calling out his name like nymphs from the sea. A real fan favourite, this song sums up everything B+S stand for and is a very clever idea for a song, well written and performed by Jackson, always a neglected part of the group. This song was famously features in the film ‘High Fidelity’ where Jack Black’s character takes the mickey out of this song for being so slow and wimpy, much to his sensitive colleague’s chagrin. It’s interesting the film makers should have chosen this song, given that its at least in part a spoof or an exaggeration of everything B+S stand for!
Side two starts with the album’s weirdest track ‘A Space Boy Dream’. Stuart David’s contribution to the album is another of his spoken word monologues, similar to his post B+S work with Looper but darker in tone, recounting a dream he once had about exploring Mars with his family. Like many a dream the experience is hazy and some of the lyrics contradict themselves (‘Faced with the reality of it, in a dream, I was terrified’) as well as being highly revealing about the dreamer. David is worried not about being somewhere new but travelling across ‘black empty space’ and having to land on the planet alone before his family arrive with him. The twist is that Mars is populated when the astronaut arrives so he decides to wait for his family. In the meantime he wakes up and doesn’t know if he’s still dreaming or not, waiting for his family to get to him so he isn’t alone in the darkness... Less funny and less successful than David’s other contribution to the band (the hilarious EP track ‘A Century Of Elvis’ where the King is reincarnated as a dog), this track doesn’t quite fit on this album somehow, its slightly terrifying backing doing a good job at painting in music the loneliness and the fright of the lyrics. Jackson’s double duty on mouthorgan and stinging electric guitar steals the show on a more electronic-based track than normal, one that’s thankfully a big improvement on the horrible ‘Electric Renaissance’ from ‘Tigermilk’. The band have fun with the extended musical coda too, adding a touch of jazz to their repertoire. However, the song doesn’t really progress anywhere and simply ends, switching gears joltingly into the next track. Perhaps B+S might have done better to stick that song onto an EP too – or were they just desperate for material and so released anything they could come up with? Sadly the lyrics aren’t printed in the lyric booklet with the other songs, which is a shame as they’re worth studying if you’re a fan – there’s a link here if you want to read them
Not that ‘Dirty Dream Number One’ is any more typical of the band either. There’s a good song here somewhere about responsibility, with Murdoch’s narrator struggling with a decision and putting off as long as he can, but the song keeps being interrupted by the ‘dirty dreams’ of the title, as if to reflect how unfulfilled the narrator feels. As a result it’s another song that feels like two others stapled together, with the excellent opening lines about balancing the freedom of being unknown compared to the restrictions of being a ‘star’ ending up in smut and cheap laughs. There’s a surprise return of the spoken word intersection here too, a device so successfully used on ‘Tigermilk’, with an un-credited voice announcing that in a town so small ‘there’s no escaping you...there’s nothing left to do’ (we’ll pick up on this theme with Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘My Little Town’ in a couple of reviews’ time). A strong performance goes some way to rescuing the song, especially some superb heavy drumming from Richard Colburn quite different in style to what he normally gets to play with the band and a soaring string-come-brass arrangement that flies over the song at the end. However by Murdoch’s standards this song is brief and not terribly interesting, which is a shame given how strong the opening lines about fame and fortune are.
The title track of the album is probably the song most fans know, having appeared in various films and TV soundtracks down the years. Film and programme makers probably seized on this song because it’s such a good example of Murdoch studying the ‘ordinary people’ he sees around him. The narrator is on a bus journey that’s only for a ‘mile and a half’ but in that time his mind wanders over all sorts of subject matters, including prison, suffering, sex and communication with the audience. It’s the closest Murdoch has ever come to fitting one of his superb but rambling sleeve notes into a song (alas there isn’t one on this album – another sign, perhaps, of the speed with which this record was made?) The narrator is struggling to come to terms with his lonely existence, that ‘nobody gives you a chance or a dollar in this old town’ and trying to urge his girlfriend to leave with him, although you know from the tone of the song that it’s never going to happen – there’s nowhere else for them to go. The characters belong here, on this interminable bus ride, trapped by their own problems. The hint is that the narrator has just been let out of prison and that the ‘solitary cell of the mind’ isn’t all that different from the people he sees on the bus who are all equally lonely and trapped in some way (‘everyone suffers in silence a burden’). Staggering off the bus the character isn’t any freer, boasting remarks to the crowd of people passing who he knows well (because everyone knows everyone in this town), who all know he’s really ‘soft’ (‘because we’ve all seen you dancing’) and yet know he’s not that soft (‘because we’ve all seen you drinking’). This lyrical tour de force is accompanied by a fascinating backing, featuring a sea of keyboards all playing the same hypnotic riff and a chirpy fleet of recorders, all playing inanely out of tune together (if that makes sense...), desperately trying to turn chaos into order. Murdoch’s vocal is a delight, freer and less inhibited than his others for this album and the band appear to be having fun with this song by trying to re-create the rhythm of a moving bus, together creating another of the highlights of the album. Listen out for the conclusion of the song though, which if you turn it up high runs for a couple of extra lines mixed so quietly you can’t hear them if you play back the album at a standard volume (the opposite of most B+S tracks, which tend to start rather than finish this way!)
‘Chickfactor’ is a second Stevie Jackson song that sounds like a Moody Blues outtake rather than a B+S song. Sung to the accompaniment of a mellotron set on a flute setting (as a big Beatles fan Jackson was probably trying to get the same sound the Beatles did on ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ which uses the flute setting too) and a piano, this is a quiet, muted song that’s hard to hear without the aid of the lyric sheet. In many ways this is the complete contrast to ‘Seymour Stein’, relating a journey Jackson took to New York and how it widened his horizons simply by letting him meet girls who were delighted to meet a member of an Indie pop band (as opposed to back home in Scotland, where most people just think he’s mad).Note the way the narrator doesn’t just leave New York for Scotland in the last verse he ‘falls from outer space’ (making for a neat tie in with Stuart David’s track too). Jackson is one of the biggest music anoraks around (and almost as obsessed as I am) and his songs nearly always include some reference or other to some 60s band – in this case it’s the Rolling Stones, with Jackson getting in references to two cult B-sides ‘The Spider and The Fly’ and ‘The Singer Not The Song’. This is a song that often gets overlooked on this album, perhaps because its mixed so strangely it’s hard to hear, but with a different mix this is as good a song as any on the album, with its cute retro rhymes (‘Aeroplanes they fly, high in the sky, pretty girl says ‘hi’...) and its subtly psychedelic swirly feel.
‘Simple Things’ is Murdoch’s retro song, sounding like a mid-60s angst ballad which, for a third song in a row, is mixed so strangely it’s impossible to hear the lyric. Less poetic and image-filled than most of Murdoch’s compositions, this sounds like another episode in the Belle and Sebastian soap opera, with ‘Sebastian’ asking for some emotional reaction from ‘Belle’. The first verse has him offer to be there for his girl any time, the second says he’s available – but not in the usual places (‘subtle as the wind is grey’ in a rather confusing line), the third imagines her growing old and still not admitting her love for him (‘I saw your arms in a dream and there were blue veins!’) while the last urges her to get to know him, to ‘ask a thousand questions’. The song is rattled off at top speed, so fast that it barely lasts a couple of minutes and doesn’t so much end as collapse, falling apart on a rhetorical question mark delivered by Jackson’s shimmering guitar-line. Less deep and less satisfying than most of Murdoch’s songs, this is still a poignant piece that adds a welcome slice of anger and frustration into the often muted story of Belle and Sebastian’s relationship.
The album then ends with ‘Rollercoaster Ride’, another album highlight with Murdoch and Martin sharing the vocal on a pastoral song about life’s ups and downs. This acoustic song is one of Murdoch’s prettiest, with a melody that cleverly reflects the rollercoaster in the lyrics, reaching high and low with each contrasting line. The song opens with a harkback to the 60s style of songwriting looking at people through ‘windows’ (a device used by The Hollies in particular), the contrasting mixture of ‘fun and sorrow’ going on in the people’s faces and starkly reflecting on these fleeting feelings as ‘you’ll be gone tomorrow’ –out of the narrator’ sight and a possible reference to the fleetingness of life for human beings. Judy, one of Murdoch’s favourite recurring characters, makes her last appearance here, perfectly happy despite still being an outcast, filling her unfashionable huge coat with ‘the pharmaceuticals she takes to fix her brain’. The narrator then pauses to reflect the ‘puzzle’ on his mind – whether to embrace his partner, with a bay on the way, and ‘normality’ or to run away. This lovely humble song barely makes it above a whisper despite packing quite a punch in its few lines, as delicate and whimsical yet as tough as B+S are at their best. Martin, especially, excels on this song and her fragile, wispy vocals weave in and out of Murdoch’s path very well before joining him in one of the best harmony vocals B+S ever recorded. Jackson, too, adds some superb slide guitar that sounds not unlike Syd Barrett’s work on his solo albums (when the Floyd guitarist actually overdubbed his parts on by playing the song backwards!) Listen out for a ‘shush’ from Murdoch about 2:50 into the song and later an unexpected giggle from another member of the band (Martin or Campbell) about six minutes in, hidden deep in the mix. There’s yet another strange, unexpected end to the song too where most of the musicians are faded out to leave just one organ note left unresolved and hanging in the air...
Overall, then, ‘The Boy With The Arab Strap’ is another excellent Belle and Sebastian record that does much to back up the band’s belief that they really would work best as an independent un-pressurised cult band rather than a mainstream commercial success. It’s not a perfect album – not as perfect as the first two superb albums anyway – but then that was part of the plan, with B+S exploring their darker, more eccentric side and playing around with their usual formulas before they got ‘old’, adding new voices, new songwriters, new instruments and new styles. Some of the songs here are half-baked, some of them are badly mixed and other poorly executed but that shouldn’t get in the way of how good the best of these songs and performances are. I love the fact that B+S aren’t perfect and leave a lot of their rough edges in their songs, even while it angers and annoys some fans, and that arguably is what Seymour Stein and his offer of bigger budgets and advertising campaigns didn’t understand. I feel that ‘Arab Strap’ – like its successor and close cousin ‘Fold Your Hands, Child, You Walk Like A Preacher’ – is an overlooked gem in the B+S canon, not as obviously unique or groundbreaking as the better known ‘Tigermilk’ and ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’ but still full of strong ideas. Belle and Sebastian, and especially its chief writer and singer Stuart Murdoch, are as good as music gets once the 70s ended and they honestly were worth the big record company attention given to them – however its probably for the best that B+S stayed independent and small, passed on by word of mouth, as it meant the band stayed ‘ours’ that little bit longer.