Monday, 29 September 2014
Belle and Sebastian: Non-Album recordings 1995-2012
Dear all , welcome to the second in our series of 'non-album' round-ups, this time for 1990s' finest Belle and Sebastian. As those of you who've read our similar project on The Beach Boys will know, we're hoping to slowly collect ourt articles into books somewhere around 2017 so here's another major piece of the puzzle not covered in any of our 'main album' articles (although we've added a few songs here originally dealt with on the 'Push Barman To Heal Old Wounds' compilation). You can see a collection of live/solo/compilation albums for Belle and Sebastian next week!Oh and sorry for the colour code - for some reason half the text has copied over successfully from 'Word' but the rest hasn't - hopefully it's still readable!
A) The earliest Belle and Sebastian recordings weren't actually the first to be released. In fact the very first recordings have never been released: a series of demos recorded while the band were still students, which impressed college professor Alan Rankine enough to see the band chosen as that year's 'student release' on Glasgow University's Electric Honey label (see our entry on 'unreleased Belle and Sebastian recordings' for more). The second batch were released but not until May 1997 - a full two years after being recorded as a sort of 'warm-up exercise for the 'Tigermilk' album and at this stage only featured the two Stuarts and drummer Richard Colburn (as a result there are no harmony vocals, only Stuart Murdoch double-tracked, no strings or trumpet and the bare basics of synthesisers and guitars. That said it's amazing in retrospect just how close this first EP is to the 'later' sound - many fans and critics lapped these recordings up quite happily without realising they were 'old' recordings). Of the four songs only an earlier demo recording of 'The State I Am In' was ever re-recorded - the rest simply sat in the vaults until the 'Dog On Wheels' EP, which was released as a kind of 'stop-gap' release between the second and third albums. The cover again features model Joanne Kenney (the star of 'Tigermilk'), this time with her top on and clutching a toy dog on wheels.
The first track on it is Dog On Wheels itself and it's a terrific place to start, being at once deeply heartfelt and downright bizarre. The narrator sounds, to all intents and purposes, as if he’s singing about his childhood sweetheart – he started off feeling ‘confounded’, then felt ‘indebted’ and seemingly is so affected by the object of his affections that ‘every song I sang is written for you’. The likes of Lionel Richie would then have got busy putting this sort of song into orchestral piano ballad-come-lift music territory, but Murdoch chooses to record his song as an edgy, restless rocker that turns into something akin to a Spanish bullfight thanks to the trumpet solo in the middle. The second verse, with the narrator reaching out to the beautiful mountains he can see outside his window that represent his escape from mundanity, is a classic set of lyrics– with the poor harassed friend there to ‘save’ him, not only when he finds his dreams aren’t real but when he falls out of the window trying literally to reach for the stars! B and S love pulling the floor from underneath you just when you think you’ve got things sorted out and in case you’re wondering where the dogs on wheels in the title has come from, the narrator reveals at the end that he’s actually been singing about his favourite childhood toy, the only person to whom he feels secure enough to tell his secrets. That revelation comes dangerously close to making this a quirky novelty record, but the band delay the punch-line for so long and give such a dark and brooding performance with everyone taking the song absolutely seriously they just about pull it off. The result is a tense, punchy rocker punctuated by shrill outbursts on the trumpet, the only true licks of colour in this very dark and shadowy song. Find it on: the EP 'Dog On Wheels' (1997) and the EP compilation 'Push Barman To Heal Old Wounds' (2005)
B) From the same EP comes one of the band's earliest recordings, the demo for The State I Am In, the band’s first major song and a landmark in 1990s songwriting, even if very few people heard it on first release. The final version of this song ended up on Tigermilk and while this early version isn't quite there yet compared to the better known, slightly later version (Colburn's drumming is a little heavy handed, the backing a little tentative and Murdoch noisily clears his throat during the line about 'She was not impressed') the magic is still audibly in the room. For a bunch of guys who hadn't met until a few months (maybe weeks) they've clearly 'got' the song and it's fragility and the way it so slowly slides out of control by the end of the song. Yes the guitars and vocals slide around, the drumming is hesitant and Murdoch's double-tracking awkward but it doesn’t matter – such is the thrilling atmosphere when the band suddenly realise for pretty much the first time that actually, yes, they can pull this sort of thing off and that by doing so they've come up with a unique sound that no one else was making. If I'd have been at Glasgow University with access to a record label I'd have signed Belle and Sebastian up for a multi-album deal then and there so strong is this track and so good the recording, when circumstances are taken into consideration. All in all this first version of one of Belle and Sebastian's greatest songs is in a mighty fine 'state' indeed. Find it on: the EP 'Dog On Wheels' (1997) and the EP compilation 'Push Barman To Heal Old Wounds' (2005)
C) String Bean Jean is one of the band’s largely unique ‘social observation’ songs of the 1990s, a gentle rocker with a gorgeous melody line which seems to add grandeur to the character’s often boring daily lives and make them sound like the soundtrack of some epic film. The title character is another of the narrator’s many friends, whose demeanour is as open as her house, so carefree and easy-going its ‘like your holidays whenever you go around’. However, the character’s ‘real’ inner personality isn’t what she displays on the outside at all, full of hidden neuroses and jealousies that cause her to compete with her friends and seek to be dangerously thin (hence her nickname, taken from the fact that her jeans size reads ‘7-8 years old’). Small of body but big of heart seems to be the theme of the song, with Murdoch keen to point out that the character’s personality means that all her friends love her far too much to care what she looks like. Jean is another of Belle and Sebastian’s early period character songs, one that’s actually quite depressing and troubling when you analyse it, but is dressed up in such pretty bright colours and zest for life that it just sounds like a strong pop tune with a neat hook the first few times you hear it. Find it on: the EP 'Dog On Wheels' (1997) and the EP compilation 'Push Barman To Heal Old Wounds' (2005)
D) The last track on the Dog On Wheels EP is Belle and Sebastian’s own song called, erm, Belle and Sebastian would you believe. It’s nothing like the true tale of how B and S got their name by the way (the band really ‘borrowed’ it from the children’s books by Mmle Cecile Aubrey because they thought it sounded interesting – the author is credited under the ‘thankyou’ list of most of the band’s CDs from this point onwards for granting her permission for them to use it) and seems to be a deliberate attempt to ‘dress up’ the myth of the band with a nice-sounding rock and roll story, creating a myth that isn’t there so openly that it seems like a spoof of all the bad rock and roll mythologies that have sprung up over the years. There’s still plenty of sweet and very B and S moments in the song, however, with Sebastian - a troubled soul weighed down by all the innocuous mistakes he makes but he worries are of world-shattering importance - one of the band’s most believable and likable characters. He’s also a great contrast with the worldly wise Belle who seems to be take life in her stride and helps takes him under her wing. Murdoch’s singing gets a bit off-key in places and the band haven’t quite got to grips with the song to the same extent as most of their other early material yet, but frankly with all the production layers that usually go on in B and S’ work in a few years’ time it’s a joy to hear this recording with the rough edges left in. Find it on: the EP 'Dog On Wheels' (1997) and the EP compilation 'Push Barman To Heal Old Wounds' (2005)