Monday, 6 October 2014

Belle and Sebastian: Assorted Compilations/Live Albums/Solo Projects




Dear all, here as promised is the last of our Belle and Sebastian-themed articles for now: a collection of every single solo album, live album, compilation and in fact anything that didn't 'fit' with our main reviews. Sorry again for the rather odd text but, hey, a little colour is what this site needs (this just wasn't quite what I wanted when I posted them here!)



Looper "Up A Tree"
(Jeepster, March 8th 1999)
The Treehouse/Impossible Things/Burning Flies/Festival '95/Ballad Of Ray Suzuki/Dave Moon Man/Quiet and Small/Colombo's Car/Up A Tree Again/Back To The Treehouse
"I'm quite happy burning flies..."
How you feel about this album - and the two follow-ups - depends a lot on whether you consider Belle and Sebastian bassist Stuart David, one of only two original founding members, to be a force for nature whose strong personality meant he was in danger of over-powering the band so much that he was relegated to a couple of EP and album tracks and whether said tracks are the highlights or lowlights of the B and S canon. In short, your enjoyment of Looper will depend on whether you think he's a genius or just a little bit weird (well, we're all a bunch of loopers aren't we, really?) Possibly, he's both: none of the three Looper albums sound anything like other records in my collection, being made up of snatches of drum tracks, spoken word monologues, sampled sound effects, synthesiser solos straight out the 1980s and a few cameos from particular instruments. Somehow it makes perfect sense that the biggest splash Stuart David made in the papers before starting Looper came when he tried to give out books on home-sampling everyday objects and lots of advice to any kid with a Casio keyboard who wrote in to him. 'Looper' is the sound of 'every day' somehow bashed into song - or not in some cases. However that's not quite true either (these albums sound a lot weirder than my every day life - and believe me I have a pretty weird everyday life). In fact, none of the Looper albums sounds anything like I'd expect: the monologues - sure, the wacky subject matters - yup, the sense that you've wondered into a complex abstract world rather than B and S' predominantly  'real' one in all the details - that's a given. But these albums aren't self-consciously wacky or even funny, the way that David's EP track for the band 'A Century Of Elvis' is. Nor are there many actual 'songs' to go along with the (sadly still unreleased) 'Paper Boat'. Instead what we have is more like 'Winter Wooskie': morality tales without an answer; snapshots in time without Murdoch's ability to offer hope or closure for the characters, occasionally songs so empty the most interesting thing about them is the track title.
That last paragraph suggests that I don't 'like' Looper very much: but that would be untrue. Parts of their trilogy of albums - and this first in particular - are often pretty, occasionally deeply catchy and almost always very sweet. Even by Belle and Sebastian standards Stuart David's natural tone as a songwriter is quiet and understated and 'Up A Tree' sounds as if the album was recorded by a talented wannabe on a shoe-string budget in their kitchen - a sound I'd take over a multi-millionaire splashing their money because they think that's how records get 'done' any day and which makes this debut the best (or at least the most consistent) of their three works. Best of all, 'Up A Tree' is at least partly autobiography and really lets the listener feel that they're a 'friend' listening in on a conversation (literally for the tracks spoken not sung). The 'true story' outlined by Looper's only other member for this album, Karn David (pictured on the front cover hoola-hopoping in a home-made 'Looper' T-shirt!) , is a delightful one: bored one day she 'borrowed'  a university flatmate’s address book and randomly picked Stuart's name to write a long and rambling letter to. Being a man of few words he simply replied 'You can write back again - if you want'. She did and the pair fell in love, a story that's repeated quite a few times across the 'Looper' story! Then there are other touches too: Stuart's nieces' voices screaming in delight at the tree-house their mad uncle has bought for them, a sequel to 'A Spaceboy Dream' (from 'Arab Strap') titled 'Dave The Moon Man' and memories of attending a particularly influential festival in 1995 'for free'. All that - and the copious illustrating photographs shot by Stuart and Karn on the booklet's inner-sleeve, offer a wonderful home-made feel to this album that, like Paul and Linda McCartney's 'Ram' or The Rolling Stones' 'Exile On Main Street' recorded in Keith Richard's basement has the feeling of getting closer to the 'essence' of performer than any bigger, more commercial album might have been. Sadly the later two albums lose this feeling ever so slightly, making 'Up A Tree' my personal favourite of the trio.
To take the tracks in order, 'The Treehouse' is a cute mellotron doodle with sampled sounds of Sally and Kirsty Brown thrilled at their new tree house.
'Impossible Things' is a 'Space Boy Dream' style monologue about Stuart's side of Karn writing letters to him, waiting for the postman to arrive, complete with accompaniment from a tapping typewriter! ('They wrote about everything, about themselves and the world, and they wrote their own world'). They then finally meet up in person but have run out of things to say, having put everything down in their letters! Probably my favourite Looper track full of hope, innocence and fate.
'Burning Flies' is more 'normal' (it even has a catchy chorus!) - although of course in this case 'normal' means a literal 'torch song' about 'burning flies'. Stuart uses a falsetto for the first time on this track which is really effective and the lyrics about not needing much in life is the closest any member of B and S ever get to spelling out their 'simplistic' philosophy out in words,  although nowhere does anyone explain why exactly they're 'burning flies', a casual cruelty that seems out of step with the usual Belle and Sebastian ethos!
'Festival '95' dates itself to the magical year when Belle and Sebastian formed and got their record deal and the band members' lives all changed. Stuart's with another girl - presumably not Karn, although she's not mentioned by name - and the pair sneak into a big outdoor event for free, where 'kind of ordinary things seemed like magic' on a 'day that catches the light, like a diamond'. The backing, though sounds like the worst kind of festival: you know, the ones where some rap star you've never heard of and yet another solo member of the Black Eyed Peas drone on for hours in some convoluted jam that no one knows how to end.
'Ballad Of Ray Suzuki' is an interesting one: no mention is given of who 'Ray' is, although his voice is apparently sampled in the song (going 'you're a looper'!) And that's about it, along with a fiercely repetitive bass track, some snarling guitar from Ronnie Black (soon to be a member of the band full-time) and a constant humming keyboard note.
'Dave The Moon Man'  is kind of a sequel to 'Space Boy Dream' (well, loosely, in the same way that the Star Wars prequels fit into the logic of the original). Dave is lying on his lawn looking up at the stars and wondering why he doesn't 'fall off' a rock travelling that fast - feeling giddy he went inside, looked things up on the internet (still quite a new thing back then, remember) and started a lecture tour. However the more he learns the more he mis-trusts what information people tell him: mankind simply wasn't able to get to the moon in 1969 'in a crazy rocket that looked like it was made out of tinfoil and cardboard' and even in the present day 'you probably wouldn't trust it to go down to the shops'. And yet Dave wants to look up at the stars and believe we got there - so he does. There's probably a metaphor about believing in dreams even when they're not true in there somewhere too. The result is a monologue not quite on a level with 'Elvis' of 'Spaceboy' but enjoyable nonetheless.
'Quiet and Small' is both quiet and small, surprisingly enough, a brief love song about someone (presumably Karn) going up a tree and waving. Or something like that. The backing is nicely understated, with a sweet mellotron lick in there somewhere too.
'Colombo's Car' is more like 'A Century Of Elvis though not quite as funny': despite Columbo being only a fictional detective, the narrator and his friend keep thinking they've seen his car everywhere they go. They find his crumpled mac and later bump into him in a slightly surreal coda where Columbo seems fascinated by all the modern technology and talks about how much his wife would like it all. Just one more question: why?!
'Up A Tree Again' is - at last - a song rather than a monologue and seems to be about happy days coming back again. The result is slight, but sweet, with a particularly Murdoch-like keyboard riff.
'Back To The Treehouse' then tries to coalesce the whole album together, using the piano lick from 'Up A Tree Again' and the sound effects of children playing from the opening track. Again, it's not really substantial enough to be a song but is quite haunting nonetheless.
Tree-mendous then. Or simply barking up the wrong tree. Or possibly slightly wooden. Or a record whose bark is worse than its bite. Or all four. It really depends on you, which is a rather agonising thing for a critic who loves spending his time telling you what to think to say, but sadly it happens to be true. If you're not sure what to make of that lot, then nor am I. In fact nor is most of the reviews of this album, which are all handily compiled on Looper's website and vary from the NME's 'Hard To Resist' to The Face Magazine's 'Really Staggering' to fanzine The Rocket's comment 'Why do we inflict this nonsense on our pop kids? You have a stupid accent, congratulations!' and the most damning of them all - university music magazine The Badger's verdict on single 'Ray Suzuki' 'Quite frankly, you'd rather listen to Steps'. The truth is either all or none of the above.

The Gentle Waves "The Green Fields Of Foreverland"
(Jeepster, April 5th 1999)
Hangman In The Shadow/Evensong/Renew and Restore/Emanuelle Skating On Thin Ice/Rose I Love You/Enchanted Place/Tree Lullaby/Dirty Snow For Broken Ground/Weathershow/A Chapter In The Life Of Matthiau/To Salt A Scar
"Sing along with my evensong, it might ease the drudgery"
Isobel Campbell's first solo project was this folky, understated album which came out at the midway point between 'Arab Strap' and 'Fold Your Hands'. You sense from what Isobel said in interviews at the time and since that she was a little bit daunted by the prospect - making music was something her boyfriends did while she was waiting back-stage - so pulling off a whole album (and technically the first actual solo record ever from Belle and Sebastian, given that Looper was a duo) is quite an achievement in itself. Unfortunately, Isobel seems to have spent most of the record making sure that things didn't go wrong rather than putting them right.
Here Isobel has recorded the sort of album you'd expect from the small handful of her compositions that had been released by the band so far: mainly pastoral ballads full of cello and her breathy voice, with the odd cameo from Mick Cooke's trumpet as the second most important sound (Stuart David, Stevie Jackson and Stuart Murdoch are all here too)
As a result 'The Gentle Waves' is a pretty good analogy for what the album is: it doesn't rock the boat but kind of drifts past you without making much of an impression. Even the lyrics are overtly gentle, tending to sing about nature and nothing even slightly controversial, personal or heartfelt. There's a place for those sort of albums, of course and it might be that I came to this album backwards, after Isobel's more emotional sequels, but this album seems more than a little empty. A little more toughness - like what's to come on sequel 'A Swansong For You', would have benefitted this album greatly, the closest record in the Belle and Sebastian canon to typical charges from non-fans that the band are 'fey' and 'light'. All of Isobel's future albums, however uneven, have a character that this rather shapeless record doesn't. As a result we've taken the rare step of not actually reviewing the individual tracks for this album as they have a tendency of sounding similar to each other.
There are however two key songs that are worth exploring and not co-incidentally, both of these buck the album trend of being gentle and restful: the driving 'Weathershow' would have made for a fine B and S B-side, with lashings of Stevie Jackson guitar giving us the album's one exciting wild ride, with more weather-metaphors in the B and S canon, with 'rain' that 'never stops for anyone'. The best song, though, is  'A Chapter In The Life Of Matthiau' which finally sees Campbell taking a leaf from Murdoch's journal and turning 'him' into a fictional character. The first verse is innocuous enough, but the second has Matthiau playing guitar 'to the people' who says he 'has it made', before leaving it in the local 'lost and found' for someone else to play. Matthiau is then 'at the place where people learn to act', soaking up the stardom. The song then ends with a repeat of a fortune-telling chorus: that 'I want to be with people who show me love, I want to be with people who I'm worthy of...and so kiss them goodbye'. Isobel will stay with Belle and Sebastian for another three years yet, but as opening track 'Hangman In The Shadow' puts it 'the clock is ticking' and the split between the pair seems to have started here. For the moment, though, this is just a slightly sad rather than mournful song and Murdoch even adds a nice counter-harmony to Isobel's lead.  Luckily its 'Matthiau' that sets the tone for Isobel's more revealing and deeper albums to come, because in truth there isn't a lot happening in the Green Fields of Foreverland and - although the view is really really pretty - any view gets boring after a while if it never changes.


Looper "Geometrid"
(Jeepster, May 8th 2000)
Mondo '77/On The Flipside/Modem Song/Uncle Ray/PuddleMonkey/These Things/Bug Rain/My Robot/Tomorrow's World/Money Hair
"This is today - it's even tomorrow"
Looper's second name is cleverly named: the phrase 'Geometrid' literally translates from Latin as someone 'looping the Earth' and is - almost - the name botanists gave to a moth (the Geometer) for their distinctive 'rolling' gait (come to think of it, I'm pretty Geometrid myself). It speaks volumes about this record, though, that the only people likely to get the 'joke' are Latin scholars (surely even more of a dying art than being a Spice Girls fan these days) and people who could be bothered to Google it : there's no clue, no fan-friendly 'hint' like a picture of a moth on the sleeve or anything helpful: instead it just comes over as a wacky name for a wacky band.
Looper's second album in many ways reflects what Belle and Sebastian were doing in 2000: nudging slightly closer to what everyone else was doing and becoming a 'band' that could sell records and have hits without being just a 'cult' band selling to a faithful few. 'Geometrid' isn't exactly an automatic seller: it's almost entirely instrumental, features the same mixture of styles and instruments from the past as well as the present and still comes with sleevenotes that, far from being illuminating, seem to be deliberately confusing. What's more there's just one monologue on the entire record, which is mainly filled with rather spaced-out instrumentals with the occasional treated vocal, which makes the album sound like a low budget Prodigy or Orb album. To be fair, the band probably have more talent than either, but sadly the charm and autobiography of the first album are missing - and, again like Belle and Sebastian in 2000, it's a tough thing to accept that 'our' band have to adapt at all (we liked them just the way they were).
However, the changes worked in the sense of securing the band a future. Opening track 'Mondo '77', while not particularly different from any other track on these three albums, is their best known and best loved song, appearing in a number of important and influential adverts and films ('Xerox' 'A Drug Free America' 'The Educators' and 'Vanilla Sky' - we'll leave you to work out which is a commercial and which is a movie!) Album track 'My Robot' is arguably the second most known Looper song  after appearing in computer game 'Project: Gotham Racing'. The 'success' of both of these tracks effectively 'paid' for Looper to release three separate EPs 'for free' via their Looper website (www.geometrid.co.uk) between 2003 and 2005, although sadly it doesn't seem to be working anymore having tried it during research for this album (we'll update this book if we ever do get to hear these 'missing' release which include 'The Strangest Girl' 'Pale Blue E-Type' and 'Close Your Eyes'). Looper were in fact closer to the music generally coming out at the millennium which all seemed to sound like a hodgepodge of old styles like these for a time and so, like Belle and Sebastian, old fans were disappointed many new ones were thrilled (and prefer this album to the even more low budget first album). Each to their own I suppose.
For me, though, the key test of an album is whether it offers something  I couldn't possibly get from anywhere else: while 'Up A Tree' passed that litmus test superbly this album sounds further away from the Stuart David 'vision' that kept cropping up within B and S. That could be for any number of reasons, but one key change in this album is that Looper are now very much a 'band' rather than a solo project, with new members guitarist Ronnie Black (who'd already guested on 'Up A Tree') and keyboardist Scott Twynholm (all sketched by Karn David in mock up prison sketches, where all four look quite scary). For a start, there's less of a 'story' to hang all this together: while 'Geometrid' is a clever name to anyone who knows their Latin and/or was bothered enough to Google it, there's no feeling of that 'theme' across this album or in the artwork, bar the confusing 'shape' sketched by Karn and actually built for the cover (which looks like a cross between the Starship Enterprise and an exploding bouncy castle).
On the plus side, though, there is another half-theme of technology getting in the way of the message - which has cropped up a few times across the entire Alan's Album Archives canon, actually, but it does rather well here. 'Tomorrow's World' discusses the modern world as it should have been and how we were told it would be when we were young, 'My Robot' has Stuart programming a robot to write songs only to find it a waste of time when he could have been physically writing instead of building, 'Modem Song' is a tribute to a then-new piece of technology and best of all 'These Things' is about the human inability to say what they really mean to one another without using emoticons, stickers, pinterest boards, tweets, emails, texts and phone calls to do the job. Throughout the record uses a complete jumble of sounds and technology from all sorts of eras (including one of my most beloved sounds, a 1967 mellotron), as if to get across the message that the human condition is timeless. Unfortunately that still leaves half an album that isn't so much 'filler' as 'confusing' - surely it would have only taken a nudge to get even the instrumentals to connect to the theme (if indeed there is one and all that wasn't just the creation of my over-wrought imagination?)
In short, no I don't know quite what to make of this second album either and yes, yet again reviewers were typically split: as the Geometrid website proudly boasts, contemporary reviews ranged from Q Magazine's 'A beautiful listening experience' and Hot Press' comment 'brass-fuelled poppiness and life-affirming soulness' to The Times' rather less supportive comment: 'Disastrous'. I don't know, critics are all a bunch of loopers aren't they?
To take the songs in order, 'Mondo '77' is 'the big one': well it earnt the band £500,000 after being picked for use in the 'Xerox' ads anyway and Tom Cruise personally made sure the song was used in 'Vanilla Sky' after someone played the album to him on set. However, in a BBC interview of the time the ever self-deprecating Stuart David claimed that 'I can only think of two or three 'fans' we've ever heard from' because of the song' and added that he was pleased the band hadn't 'spoilt' things by becoming 'big'. That's Teenage Fanclub drummer Francis MacDonald you can urging the non-existent crowd to 'come on' and 'here we go', while a simple synth pattern simply cycles on and on and a sampled horn section bleats away.
'On The Flipside' was a 'band jam' turned into a song that's actually a lot better than it's well known predecessor. David sings in his sweet falsetto voice again on a song all about secrets and his 'split' need to 'sit and just be quiet and breathe' and 'a vicious little boy' who finds 'something won't let me be'. Stuart then uses the great metaphor of wanting to be part superstar, part recluse, something that leaves him stuck 'on the flipside' of an important record, 'stuck somewhere beneath the 'A' (for those too young to remember, vinyl singles came physically stamped with 'A' and 'B' markings, unlike a CD single where everything is on the same side). The best song on the album by far, 'On The Flipside' would have made a fine Belle and Sebastian album track (despite the lyrics this Looper song is too good for a mere 'B' side!)
'Modem Song' is the only song here actually written for an advert requested by an unknown 'internet company'. They didn't like it, though, so Looper re-used it on this record instead. It sounds awfully like that irritating BT advert where some gimp whose clearly never been interrupted in the middle of writing an album review tells us that 'it's good to talk', full of chattering signals and phone lines and  a kind of 'half' monologue with another Looper character, this time living in Japan. She's as eccentric as all the British Looper characters though, sending the narrator 'a rabbit in a cloth box' and telling him to sit it by the window when the moon gets bigger in September. Yep, I've got friends like that too - and I can see why an 'internet company' didn't use this song now I think about it...
'Uncle Ray' is meant to be catchy, upbeat and sunny but it's simply irritating. If the sleevenotes are to be believed (and like Belle and Sebastian's there's no reason why they should be!) 'Uncle Ray' doesn't belong to the band but was heard in conversation at a diner on an American tour. The band repeat 'Hey-ey Uncle Ray' a total of 22 times. Two was more than enough to be honest.
The intriguingly titled instrumental 'Puddlemonkey' sounds like the title music on one of those early computer games. It was apparently titled that by Karn who'd always wanted to use the name for a 'fictional band' that she never got round to properly creating. At under 30 seconds, though, this song sounds like a simple excuse to get the word 'puddlemonkey' into print.
'These Things' is at last more of a 'proper' song again and features the same sort of haunting mellotron lick that made parts of 'Up A Tree' so special. David's treated voice is back to the fore again on a song that could easily be a Murdoch song: what the narrator really wants to say is how happy he is and how much he's in love, but so reserved is he that the closest he gets is the line 'These things almost make me smile'. Karn is listed as one of these 'things', but only after Stuart's other lives: Seinfeld, New York, Beck, South Park and Space Man. Who said romance was dead?! The song started out as a guitar instrumental, improvised by Ronnie Black live on stage one night when the power to all the keyboards failed, although you can't actually hear that much guitar on the track anyway.
'Bug Rain' dates from another night on the American tour when the road was suddenly covered in a sea of frogs (yes, I know they're not bugs, tell it to Looper not me!) The lyrics seem to be true to life: that's band roadie James (the same poor soul whose address book Karn 'borrowed' to first write Stuart a letter) trying not to fall asleep at the wheel and probably wishing he'd never let his two friends meet! This slight and repetitive song is cute but soon begins to bug you.
'My Robot' is another Ronnie Black jamming session seized upon by Stuart, who promptly wrote his one true monologue on the album around it. The song is based around the old Beatles joke that one day they were going to send a robot out on stage programmed with their songs and no one would notice because the crowds were too busy screaming anyway. Only this one actually helps write the songs - or at least that's the idea, Stuart wasting all his time soldering bits on (until the house 'smelt like a Paris metro') when he could have been writing his own songs the whole time: end result, it didn't work and the robot lies under his bed 'totally useless'. Clever, but compared to the similar 'A Century Of Elvis' and 'A Spaceboy Dream', a bit too mechanical.
The song leads neatly into 'Tomorrow's World', which nicks the futuristic theme tune from the long-running scientific BBC TV series (and was still running in 2000; in fact it was only axed as late as 2003, when the rate of change was such it simply couldn't keep up) Stuart lists all the things he was promised in his childhood would happen but never did: trips to mars, hotels on the moon, video phones, virtual reality, cyber space. A lament for lost childhood dreams, this track is actually quite affecting, reflecting ultimately that what we have today still seemed like science fiction to earlier generations.
The album ends with 'Money Hair', where a hair cut seems to take on a whole new meaning of defiance and stubbornness.  Basically, don't rely on a gimmick because it will get old - have the courage to be yourself even when times are hard because one day things will go well. David's falsetto vocal is particularly strong here and the sampled horn section sound pretty good, but sadly there's a flatness about this song (perhaps it's the drum track?) that just prevents it from becoming the singalong it deserves to be.
So, that was 'Geometrid'. A bigger song,  more ideas, some special moments band although there's not quite as much heart as before the whole thing is still undeniably loopy. Join us for the third and final album a few pages on...

The Gentle Waves "Falling From Grace" (EP)
(Jeepster,  September 2000)
Falling From Grace/Going Home/October's Sky/Hold Back A Thousand Hours
"I'm always looking for the sun to shine"
Isobel's second release from two months after the 'Folds Your Hands' album is a sort of interim release, testing the waters for the Gentle Waves' more emotionally resonant second album. Interestingly Isobel chose to go down the 'band' route that 'if unsure what to do, release an EP' - and benefitted from the strong reviews this EP got, whilst running below the radar of most casual music publications. The result is a little gem, one that's clearly a little on the short side but is actually track-for-track better than even career highlight 'A Swansong For You' (the record that came out just two months after this). The title track will end up on the next record proper (and has been dealt with in that chapter), but the other three songs are unique to this project:
in turn 'Going Home' is a folky ballad that features Isobel almost purring her way through a song that once again seems to be a warning to her ex: attacking him for blowing hot and cold and warning him 'since you have forgotten how to know your feelings, I am going home'. A brave song, with  a lovely cello part in the second half, this composition really deserved to make the album.
'October's Sky' is a fun first attempt at an 'inter-0war' sound that will only come into its own on Isobel's later work with Mark Lanegan, complete with production effects to make the tape sound 'aged' and another lyric that's best described as 'lonely'.
Finally, 'Hold Back A Thousand Hours' is the first candidate for 'best Isobel Campbell' solo song, a gorgeous fragile piano ballad that features Isobel's dreamy vocal and stinging lyric at its best. Isobel longs to re-wind time so she can go back and experience all the great times with her partner again and see 'the smile on his face' again for the first time - the closest we come to Isobel's side of being in love in the 20th century (where it's almost certainly about Stuart). By my maths, though, she's only going back a little over four days here which doesn't sound enough. Still, this is a terrific piece of music that builds verse by verse and more than deserved a place on the album, beating the 'A' side hands down.

The Gentle Waves "Swansong For You"
(Jeepster, November 6th 2000)
Let The Good Times Begin/Partner In Crime/Falling From Grace/Loretta Young/Sisterwoman/Solace From Pain/Flood/Pretty Things/There Is No Greater Gold/There Was Magic Then...
"Do you like pretty things? Would you caress broken wings?"
Isobel's second record is like her first but more so, a largely lush orchestral goodbye that's even further removed from the default Belle and Sebastian sound, despite the fact that almost all the band play on the record. The resulting sound is an interesting one, a sort of 'mellow Western' sound, one full of high drama but heard only in a whisper, like the lull before a 'high noon' shootout you know is going to come. While Isobel keeps her band 'moniker' of 'The Gentle Waves' for a second and last time, this isn't so much a gentle day at the beach as the moment you realise a tsunami is about to break, with everyone caught halfway between relaxed calm and sudden induced panic. In other words, 'A Swansong For You' sounds quite unlike anything else in the band's, even Isobel's canon: the closest any of the band ever came to making a record that was a loud yell, even though technically she never goes above a whisper throughout. While 'Green Fields' pointed towards this sound, all pretty, breathy and pretty breathy ballads, it's here that Isobel finally finds her 'voice'. She does that, not by copying Stuart as before, but by being revealing and autobiographical - ironically a style Stuart will begin to copy as the 2000s wear on. While Isobel is by all standards but her own incredibly quiet across the entire record and the backing is best described as sleepy, the main thing that comes across on this record is toughness, a gentle kitten backed into a corner and forced to growl like a tiger.
The 'fireworks ahead' sound is apt given that this album is even more about Isobel's relationship with Murdoch: as the title suggests, this is another 'goodbye' spelt out in ever more detail a full year before Stuart first reveals in his songwriting that something might be wrong. Many times she goes back over the story of how the pair met, her dreams before they were shattered and even more Isobel spends time talking about why what once seemed so right has to be over. Mainly because the singer doesn't believe in the songwriter anymore. What's interesting is that isn't a couple in the throes of splitting up either: it's well over by now (before most fans realised there was anything wrong), with several references to living your life alone ('When you ain't got no one you feel like something's amputated') and trying to put a brave face on things. Some of the lyrics are downright rude in fact, varying between making Murdoch a man of no emotions and the most emotionally crippled being in history. A lot of these songs go even further than Murdoch's famous song about the split 'I'm Waking Up To Us': 'I desire a partner in crime, I've grown tired of endless crying' 'Come down from your ivory tower, it hurts when you give love away'...It's all a long way from the days of the 'Dog On Wheels' EP and 'Tigermilk' LP where the united stand against a mad old world was the whole point. Only on 'Solace For Pain' and 'There Is No Greater Gold' does she return to her normal quietly supportive stance.
Even with the big changes in 'feel', however, it's surprising that this record feels like as big a departure as it does. Isobel whispers on most of her songs ('Legal Man' being about the only exception) but never with quite this amount of threat. Her songs are often sad - though here it's not a few tears being dabbed but a river of melancholy that surprises even her. Even musically this record sounds different: strings have been a key part of B and S' sound since the beginning, but they're truly central to this record, turning Isobel into an almost Edith Piaf figure, neutral in her vocal tones and saying everything through the high drama of the music and lyrics. Even the use of Belle and Sebastian, with Stevie, Chris, Richard, Mick and Stuart himself appearing several times across the record (playing 'bass' rather than guitar or piano - presumably Stuart David had already left the band by this point; Sarah's conspicuous by her absence by the way) sounds odd here: only Stevie's guitar sounds like usual and only the tracks 'Falling From Grace' and 'Loretta Young' feels in any way like a 'band' song. What's more none of the band add vocals of any kind, even back-up harmonies, making Isobel's very much the lone, lonely voice at the centre of this record.
In truth, all that heavy emotion makes heavy going across a whole record, but taken individually song-by-song Isobel's gifts for melody and lyrics were never better. Practically every song on this album is amongst her best work, poignant and heartfelt without the 'filler' so many of her albums have. In fact 'A Swansong For You' is arguably better than either of the two previous Belle and Sebastian albums and shows Isobel really coming into her own as a writer in her own right, not just as a supporter and muse. That's rare in music: it would be like Anni-Frid and Agnetha suddenly writing all the best songs in Abba; to date only The Monkees have pulled off a similar coup of going from creation to creator. Like the best Murdoch songs Isobel has a strong ear for imagery and characters - the difference being that most of the characters are her and Stuart - and this time around she's found a melodic gift that's both suitable and strong . A really strong album that deserved to do better and a fine companion piece to the Belle and Sebastian EPs of 2001 that tell even more of the sorry story.
'Let The Good Times Begin' is the only 'happy' song on the album, with a slowly unfolding melody that's accompanied by a mournful violin part. Disliking what she's going through, Isobel vows simply to live in the present and to 'let the music play' (was this song written on a B and S tour?), reflecting on happier days but which even then she knew 'wasn't working', being 'solely chemistry, not love'. The song is chocolate-box pretty but already you can tell that below the surface these chocolates contain chilli powder.
'Partner In Crime' is my favourite song on the album, a whispered drama that could have appeared on a John Wayne film soundtrack. A lonely 20-year-old calls out to the stars for an 'angel' so she won't be alone anymore. The next verse finds her '23, 24, 25...' and full of hope for the future. Then comes verse three: 'Lonely, sad, with an almost religious quality' as her friends and relatives get married and she sees less and less of her 'angel', with the 'electricity' she used to feel for life now replaced with the idea that 'life continued but isn't worth living'. The song ends ominously 'all she'd ever dreamed wished and yearned for  had been stolen and shot down'. It might be worth adding that Isobel was 19 when she and Stuart met and all of 24 here when this album came out. The song balances all this angst with a classic chorus that tried to sound 'happy'  but is instead stalked throughout by a pair of violins waiting to pounce. A neat subversion of B and S' usual 'spoken word' tricks, this is speech as high serious drama rather than comedy and works very well. The rest of the band are great too, with Stevie playing one of his best ever guitar solos around the song's central haunting refrain.
'Falling From Grace' is a more normal, yet less successful song that could have been a Belle and Sebastian one with harpsichord and rock and roll beat. Isobel sounds removed from everyone though, her vocal heavily treated with echo - and judging by the bitter lyrics perhaps that's the point: 'If I could learn to lie and never show my pride, I'd be just like the rest - someone I detest'. Isobel ends the song 'waiting for the sun to shine' - was Stuart inspired to write his similarly moody 'Waiting For The Moon To Rise' from the band's next LP?
'Loretta Young' is the other album highlight, a track that sounds to me as if is Isobel is doing her ex's old trick and writing a song about him using a different name. The narrator is in a 'dusty house' that's 'broken' and imagines herself sweeping out the 'guilt' and 'sin' as well as the rubbish as she tidies up. The first verse has Isobel confiding in a younger friend, telling her 'Once I was young too, in trouble like you - it hurts when you throw love away'. A lovely circling riff and a gentle even by Gentle Waves standards backing makes for another memorable song.
'Sisterwoman'  is a funky 50s pastiche that previews the lyrics from 'Family Tree' (part written by Stuart) with a tale of being strong on the outside and vulnerable on the inside. This song is the most direct yet about the relationship at the heart of the band and seems torn between love and hate: 'You gave me life, you gave me breath, through blood and tears you cried my name, no other bond will be the same' before adding that all men are bad at relationships, that 'they'll push it in then push you out'. The result is not unlike Yoko Ono's rock-influenced feminist anthems of the 1970s. And before anyone takes that as an insult I rather like Yoko Ono's rock-influenced feminist anthems of the 1970s.
'Solace From Pain' is Isobel singing alone to Chris Geddes' piano accompaniment and is either looking for a new love in her life or reflecting on how she met Stuart (this song is very like one of his). 'Sir, you do possess such kind eyes' is her typically formal chat-up line, adding that this makes the un-named soul 'like a saint in books of old, painted with a hue of prophecy. Compared to most of the record this song is warm and tender and features another lovely melody , although the song ominously ends mid-note unexpectedly, suggesting that an evil prophecy is coming true.
'Flood' is yet another Belle and Sebastian song about the weather: but instead of light drizzle, snow or sun its absolutely bucketing it down in this song. Isobel looks back to happier times ('Our hearts were happier then'), contrasting the slightly rainy April when she met her lover (Stuart?) with the current deluge in June where he's left her for someone else. It could be that Isobel is playing with traditional folk song  'April Comes She Will' here (she knows a lot of folk tunes, as we'll be seeing later) where each month is part of the 12 'chapters' of a person's life. In which case this song, which speaks of a Spring romance that will last forever and dreams of a perfect summer which get dashed by unexpected rainfall is almost unbearably poignant. Another of the album's highlights, with the mix of Stevie's guitar, Chris' organ and Richard's drums having a great extended jam at the end.
'Pretty Things' is possibly the weakest moment on the album, though: a slow lazy jazz number with more mournful but less original lyrics on how everything has its time: sand castles melt, smiles fade, pretty things break. This is no 'All Things Must Pass' though and even with less words than any other song on the album runs out of things to say pretty quickly. The highlight is Mick Cooke's trumpet solo at the end.
'There Is No Greater Gold' features more trumpet but is the most mournful song yet and even for this record sounds so light and fragile the whole thing might blow away before the end of the song. That's entirely apt given that this song recounts even more of Isobel and Stuart's early relationship, meeting him on a 'walk outside' on a 'lucky day'. Reflecting that 'there is no greater gold' than magic days when you met a soulmate, Isobel seems in a more forgiving mood ('It was meant this way') before adding that she probably won't be around much longer and would rather have the memories, ending with one final twinge of regret: 'Love, I don't think I'll see you again'. Amazingly given some of the lyrics across this album, Isobel will in fact last another two years with Belle and Sebastian before leaving in strained circumstances.
The album then ends with 'There Was Magic, Then...', the closest this understated album comes to an epic. Isobel sings alone with violins about her childhood dreams, of someone she could nurse alongside her doll and of dancing. Against the odds, she found both and reflects that 'this life has been kind to me, I have some misery - but don't we all?' Now, though, she's really started to question what she once held as sacred: the idea that life is essentially happy and full of purpose; she notices 'lost children' wherever she looks who already know what she's learnt too late: that life is often cold and harsh and pointless and she already fears for what might become of her. Sounding a like a cross between 'Les Miserables' and Vivaldi, this is the most dramatic B and S song yet and ends the way the record began, with Isobel looking over her shoulder and wishing the past could happen again.
So ends a fine confessional-style album, full of emotion, drama, regrets, autobiography and nostalgia, with the 'Belle' we felt we knew pretty well anyway from all of Murdoch's many songs now fully three-dimensional . Sadly after pairing out her heart on this record Isobel never quite manages to regain quite as much of herself again and in Murdoch style starts writing for 'characters' (notably Mark Lanegan, whose gravelly voice allows her to use all the harsh and gritty realism that doesn't suit her own). Next up for her though is a third solo record, where she goes back to using her 'real' name...
"Live In Belfast"
(Rough Trade, Recorded 2001, Released 2008 as disc two of the 'special edition' set of 'The BBC Sessions')
Here Comes The Sun/There's Too Much Love/The Magic Of A Kind Word/Me and the Major/Wandering Alone/The Model/I'm Waiting For The Man/The Boy With The Arab Strap/The Wrong Girl/Dirty Dream #2/The Boys Are Back In Town/Legal Man
"Let's have plenty of Wurlitzer!"
Belle and Sebastian have only released one bona fide LP - and even that's an unusual case (the live performance of the entire 'Sinister' album in 2005). In many ways that's probably just as well: reports of Belle and Sebastian's late appearances, long periods of tuning and mistakes are legendary: though by the same token there's usually some point somewhere in every show that really takes off: when the band hand out percussion instruments to 'make' the audience part of the 'band' a la The Plastic Ono Band, when they get the audience up on stage to dance or simply get it together all at the same time on a classic song. Sadly no professional recordings seem to exist of the band from their early days, so the closest we have is a 'bonus' disc added to the 'deluxe' edition of 'The BBC Sessions' in 2008, which features a 12-song concert recorded in Belfast on December 21st 2001 and broadcast on the BBC's Radio One.
The result is ramshackle, but fun, with the slow steady pace and unfolding text of the records turned into a kind of all-night party with slow moments. The result takes some getting used to at first, like it does for many an AAA band heard live and better known for their polished studio records (ie CSNY or The Moody Blues), but if you come to this album as a way of hearing Belle and Sebastian away from their usual habitat rather than re-creating perfection the album is still interesting. In fact at times the band sound surprisingly tight: especially the string section who act as the 'grounding' element the bass and drums would be for most bands. Alas a lot of the chat (often the best bit at a B and S show) has been cut, while the track selection for this show is a little on the ordinary side by the band's standards 9and is noticeably high on 'rock' songs and low on ballads). That said the big talking point of this album are three exclusive cover versions: songs by The Beatles, The Velvet Underground and Thin Lizzy, none of which are the greatest thing the band ever did but are still worth hearing (especially the first).
As for the 'old' songs, the end result is a mix. 'There's Too Much Love' is rushed and awkward. 'The Magic Of A Kind Word' gets the fast sections spot-on but messed up the slower ones. A really fast-paced 'Me and the Major' is great, however, almost improving on the original (with the ad lib 'he remembers Stiff Little Fingers in '78' rather than ';He remember all the punks in '72'). 'Wandering Alone' - then a brand new song a year away from being included on an album - never really catches fire. 'The Model' is fun, complete with harpsichord intro and criss-cross vocals between Stuart and Stevie, but still not up to the original record. 'The Boy With The Arab Strap' is another of the highlights, with Stuart rushing to the keyboard to beat Chris to the opening keyboard lick ('I did it for once!') and offering much more of an 'emotional' vocal than on the original. Stevie's 'The Wrong Girl' is better than the 'main' BBC session but still lacks the sparkle of the studio record. 'Dirty Dream #2' works really well, though, thanks to the strong roles given to Richard Colburn's heavy drumming and the string section, really rocking out here with the band navigating the unusual chord changes well by now (this song is about the closest they've had to a 'set regular' since it was introduced three years earlier!) Finally, a vibrant 'Legal Man' is let down by Stuart and Stevie's flat vocals but musically sounds terrific and shows what a tight little live band Belle and Sebastian could be when they felt like it. Like the first disc of the 'BBC Sessions' I might not play it very much compared to the main records, but it's nice to have. 


The Gentle Waves and Billy Wells "Ghost Of Yesterday" (EP)
(Creeping Bent,  July 2002)
All Alone/Ghost Of Yesterday/Who Needs You?/Please Don't Do It In Here/Preacher Boy/Tell Me More And More (And Then Some)/Somebody's On My Mind
"Ghost of yesterday stalking 'round my room"
So, what next for Isobel Campbell, now she's exorcised her demons and is now officially a solo act rather than a member of Belle and Sebastian. hands up if you said 'an EP of Billie Holiday covers with a musician twice her age'! The choice is actually more relevant than you might expect: many of Billie's songs were written and sung as escape from her background as part of America's first generation of 'free' slaves', trying to scrape a living against racial intolerance that found her working in a brothel for a time to make ends meet. Isobel knows all about using music as an 'escape' and of the joy of finding out that a career spent doing the work of others has suddenly blossomed into your 'own' little world. What's more Isobel's recorded not the obvious songs but the 'last seven' that Billie had written in 1959 but never recorded before her death, with the EP acting as a kind of tribute to her. As for Billy Wells, he's worked with everybody whose anybody in Scottish music as a bassist, guitarist and pianist with a specialist knowledge of jazz and has made a career out of re-arranging music you might be used to hearing in a new way.
So, is 'Ghost Of Yesterday' a success to match 'A Swansong For You'? Not quite. Isobel does a good job at re-interpreting loud and brash songs for her quieter, breathy voice but she's notably less comfortable than on her own songs. A lot of the EP also tries that little bit too hard to do something different and so ends up being more about the 'wacky' backing than the song: 'Who Needs You?', for instance, is a combination of synthesiser squeaks and bleeps here with Isobel singing, lost, over the top. On the plus side, though, both Isobel and Billy avoid the trap of re-recording Billie's better known songs or of trying to match Holiday on her own terms. Instead they try to capture the feeling of 'claustrophobia' inherent in many of Holiday's songs but usually pierced by her strong vocals, which really draws out what a sad and reflective bunch they actually are. The compositions sound very like a 'Gentle Waves' project in fact and Billy Wells is a sympathetic collaborator, not pushing Isobel too far out of her comfort zone. A full album of these songs, instead of an (admittedly generous at seven tracks) EP would have been very interesting indeed.
To take the songs briefly in order, 'All Alone' was titled 'Left Alone' on Billie's original composition, although she never released it - co-writer Mal Waldron did it instead as a 'tribute' to her when she died in 1959. A mournful eulogy to both Billie and Isobel's feeling of isolation in 2002, this is a striking recording, with a long fadeout based around a single held synthesiser note.
'Ghost Of Yesterday' is a song by Irene Wilson common to Billie Holiday compilation albums, although Billie never seemed to release it as a single. Isobel's at her jazziest here, which doesn't necessarily suit her, although the quiet still backing is another strong interpretation.
'Who Needs You?' is another song Billie co-wrote but died before she recorded, with Aretha Franklin recording the best known version. A kiss off song to her second husband Louis McKay, you can see why Isobel would have chosen this song as it's very close to her own style - the chorus says 'Hah! Who needs you anyway?' while the verses say 'I do!' (a trick she used often on her 'Gentle Waves' albums). Unfortunately the ugly one-note modern backing rather ruins the song.
'Please Don't Do It In Here' was co-written with Billie' pianist Buster Harding and features Billie calmly acting like a grown-up while her mad ex-lover tears up her house. Given the hints Isobel gave us on 'A Swansong For You', this might well be how she felt too.
'Preacher Boy' is a tribute, of sorts, to Louis McKay, who was nicknamed 'Preacher' by his friends (the story goes his mother had a lot of pets and always chose him to 'say a few words' so he got rather good at graveside patter!) What's more, he sounds remarkably like Stuart Murdoch: 'He didn't say much, he's the silent kind, but his arms are strong - the same as his mind'.
'Tell Me More and More (And Then Some)'  features more uncomfortable synthesiser bleeps over a song whose authorship is in dispute: Billie claimed it all for her own; writer and occasional composer Arthur Herzog says the lyrics is his ('and she stole the tune from 'St James' Infirmary' anyway'). Either way it's one of the weaker songs here, a song asking a lover to 'whisper until doomsday' how much her loves her.
Finally, 'Somebody's On My Mind' plays us out with the most hopeful song on the album and the only song here that Billie actually did record. 'To dream my dream might be my mistake - but I'd rather be wrong and sleep right along than awake' sings Isobel, possibly with her recent departure from Belle and Sebastian on her mind. The piano backing is lovely, but another even more irritating and out-of-place synth part means we can't flipping hear it.
Overall, though, 'Ghost Of Yesterday' is a fine tribute from one very different singer to another, but with enough shared background and empathy to pull most of these covers off. Billy Wells' settings, whilst not always suitable, manage to become a bridge to both halves of the partnership and the result is an under-rated little EP that deserved to receive much more notice and credibility than it got. Isobel will be back, under her own name and using her own songs once more, the following year...erHerzog says it's one of his. H

Looper "The Snare"
(Mute Records, May 27th 2002)
The Snare/Sugarcane/New York Snow/Peacock Johnson/Driving Myself Crazy/Lover's Leap/Good Girls/She's A Knife/This Evil Love/Fucking Around
"We're only messing around, we're only having fun [scary laugh]"
No Latin needed for the final part of the 'Looper' trilogy, with 'The Snare' of the title referring to a 'loop' of material, generally used to 'trap' people. That's a little how I feel listening to this third album, which is even more mainstream and less distinctive than its predecessor and finds what once started as a fun home-made project at risk of becoming as caught up with the modern commercial world as any other band. For a start, the financial problems at B and S' home on Jeepster have caused the band to jump ship to Mute Records - reportedly for a five-album deal although only one this one actually made it to the 'shops'. Like Belle and Sebastian when they sign for Rough Trade the following year, this is clearly a chance for Looper to show what they can do and compete with the big boys: alas like Belle and Sebastian this leaves them in danger of sounding like everybody else. Scott Twynholm has left, but the band have brought in not one but two replacements. Well sort of: 'Peacock Johnson' is listed in the credits and even gets his own scary Karn David-drawn 'mug shot' in the album's inner sleeve, but he's also a fictional character, 'invented' by Stuart David for his book 'The Peacock Manifesto' published in 2001 (and originally 'created' by David for an auction Ian Rankin was holding for charity, where 'Peacock' won the prize of being features in Rankin's novel 'A Question Of Blood'). By contrast 'Evil Bob' sounds fictional but is actually 'real', playing the distinctive saxophone section for real this time, instead of using a synthesiser (although hopefully that isn't his birth name).
The biggest change, though, doesn't lie in the amount of musicians or the change of record label but in the overall 'feel' of the record. Both 'Up A Tree' and 'Geometrid' are to some extent upbeat albums: the first is a love story, with cameos about treehouses and burning flies; the second loosely about the human condition surviving despite inhuman technology. 'The Snare' though is a scary old record: the front cover depicts a model standing in as 'Peacock Johnson' standing on a cold, deserted, country road at night and looking like the worst kind of hitch-hiker you'd never want to pick up; the mug-shots inside make even the familiar faces of Stuart, Karn and Ronnie look like they're serving a ten-year stretch for gurning and the music is best described as 'creepy'. Throughout there are repetitive 'three-note' piano riffs inserted apparently at random (an old horror movie trick to create atmosphere), Stuart sings not in his familiar falsetto but in a deeper growl and there are long empty spaces filled only by your own breathing. If this was a film you'd be behind the sofa and longing for the closing credits. Even the presence of 'special guests' Mick Cooke and Isobel Campbell doesn't do anything to ease the tension (and never has their trumpet and cello playing respectively sounded more alien and other-worldly).
The change is sound is, admittedly, less me and this album has its fair share of people calling it Looper's best (reviews range from Pulse's 'The most original and consistent Looper album yet' to City Life's hilariously damning 'The absolute worst record of 2002. That can be said proudly and with confidence, even though the year is barely past the midway point', again both are featured on Looper's website), but for these ears the worst thing about this album is the lack of decent songs. The album ends with a song that doesn't have much to say past 'we're only fucking around' and that kind of sums up the album really: the lyrics for the first two albums often read more like short stories, with several paragraphs of text; these ones seem more like postcards. There's also no monologues at all this time and rather more instrumentals. In short, it's difficult to know what to make of this album as well as the other two, although the phrase that springs to mind is 'third album syndrome (the first made for fun, the second with confidence riding the crest of a wave and the third inevitably has nowhere to go but down, unless you're The Beatles). A sad place to go, with Looper retreating to their website and abandoning records entirely, leaving them - if you pardon the pun - out of the loop with their record base. On the basis of this album that's no great loss and finds them declining even quicker than Belle and Sebastian, but after the first two that's a shame: I always felt that Looper had the potential to make a really great record and maybe they still do.
'The Snare' is a sense of foreboding that won't really leave for the rest of the record ( 'There's no sense in running, I knew this was coming, I knew that this nightmare was near'), with two Stuart's - one singing, one whispering - over a background that sounds like the nightmare in your head as converted into a tack piano.
'Sugarcane' is creepier yet, with guest Margaret Smith adding some flute to proceedings and lyrics that on paper sound like a love song but when set against this hammer horror backing sound distinctly creepy ('Her name is Sugarcane, her taste is sweeter than any treat'). Run!
'New York Snow' features yet more Karn David hammering of a dulcimer on one of the better songs on the album, co-written with Ronnie Black and loosely inspired by 9/11. David's narrator reads about the tragedy 'safe by the fire' watching ambulances rushing to the scene. At first you think he's guilty simply because he's safe but a twist in the third verse suggests her was part of the conspiracy: 'The thing that would convict me is under the New York snow'.
'Peacock Johnson' was a book and now he's a song. Guest vocalist Debbi Poole sings this one, taking the feel of the record even further away from the 'old' band sound, although we never get any better idea who this character really 'is' - we keep being told 'he's going to 'do' something' but never find out what that 'something' is. The best thing to say about this song is that the backing finally uses 'proper' instruments again and sounds all the better for it: another guest, Neil Cameron, plays some excellent upright bass and Stuart himself adds some nicely hypnotic piano.
'Driving Me Crazy' is the catchiest song on the record, with David perfecting the art of a creepy vocal about the voices in his head ('I'm trying not to listen but it won't shut up!') However the song never quite gets to the crescendo it seems to be building to and sticks to unsettling rather than tortured.
'Lover's Leap' sounds more like an Isobel Campbell song, with a mixture of marimbas, 'Western' style guitar parts and artificial horns. David tells us not to be afraid, but there's something in his voice that means you don't quite trust him. 'Be careful how you stand upon the rocks, because he's where he slipped and fell - I thought he screamed, but you never can tell' he sings nonchalantly. Personally I'm not buying it - I'm getting out of here!
'Good Girls' really does feature Isobel on cello and again its sweet lyrics seem on paper look quite innocent ('Good girls follow the rules...') and even have a 'music-box' style melody straight out of childhood. However this is another unsettling song when performed with lots of creaks and noises and another deep growl of a vocal and the lyrics about being 'giddy as a schoolboy' to meet such a good girl seem deeply wrong.
'She's A Knife' is more energetic song about a girl too smart to fall for that old story again, with an explosive female chorus featuring lots of singer Elaine Lovells, multi-tracked. This is one of the more memorable songs on the album.
'This Evil Love' continues the theme: 'You can run through the trees to wherever you please, but deep down you know this evil love will follow you'. Err, is everything alright at home, Stuart? You get the picture by now: dulcimer, saxophone, creepy vocals...
The album ends with the album's only light-hearted moment 'Fucking Around'. Ha ha ha the band was only joking so that's alright then isn't it? Well, no - even this song sounds sinister and threatening in places, like the temporary truce in the middle of a horror film where there's no bodies to lull you into a false sense of security in the second half. At least the song features Stuart going back to the sort of higher-pitched vocal we're more used to hearing and there's quite a lovely tune at the heart of this song, emphasised by Mick Cooke's lovely trumpet part which acts like a soothing balm. That still isn't enough to wipe out the memory of the past 35 minutes, however, no matter how many times Looper tell us they're only messing with us.
So ends a scary and rather repetitive third album. While 'The Snare' isn't quite a true 'horror' story, performed by the undead, it is a rather lifeless and confused record, with only occasional glimpses of what the band can do. And, alas, that's all the band did do - unless Looper finally get around to making that fourth album before publication (and to be honest, it's been a while) that is where Stuart David and his wee wife Karn leave the Belle and Sebastian story...


Isobel Campbell "Amorino"
(Snowstorm,  October 7th 2003)
Amorino/The Breeze Whispered Your Name/Monologue For An Old True Love/October's Sky/The Cat's Pyjamas/Why Does My Head Hurt So?/Johnny Come Home/Poor Butterfly/Love For Tomorrow/There Is No Greater Gold/This Land Flows With Milk/Song For Baby/Time Is Just The Same
"Cut the cord and we let it go!"
One thing I've often wondered about this record - why is it this one that saw Isobel using her real name for the first time? Is it a response to the fact that Isobel is talking about herself, rather than singing through a character, on 'A Swansong For You'? A reference to the fact that Isobel now has a fully-formed 'voice' with which to sing? Is it because this is the first album made from start to finish since Isobel left the band? Or is it simply that Isobel is now on a new record label, a similar independent label to Jeepster, and now wants a fresh start? It might help that 'Amorino' is an Italian word for 'infant' and a lot of these pieces - particularly 'Song For Baby' - refer to looking at the world afresh and starting again.
To some extent, though, this is a false start. Isobel doesn't know it here of course, but in just six months' time she'll discover a whole new method of making these albums, living out her darker side through vocalist Mark Lanegan. The three albums the pair make together, while far from perfect, are clearly excited and enthusiastic. 'Amorino' is an album that thinks its excited and enthusiastic too: Isobel's taken her usual style and slightly chopped and changed it a bit here so that it sounds a bit more produced than normal, with a few new sounds to add to the table (mostly woodwind and horns). Interestingly, the same year that Belle and Sebastian have gone to Rough Trade and worked with Trevor Horn to really fill out their sound is when Isobel has decided to make the leap from making muted albums of whispered emotion to big budget movie soundtracks featuring whispered emotion. This album should be big and bold and in your face, the same way that 'Dear Catastrophe Waitress' is, but Isobel hasn't changed her distinctive sound quite as much as she thinks she has: compared to the Mark Lanegan albums to come this isn't that exciting still and she doesn't sound that enthusiastic. She still sounds as mellow and as breathily content as ever, she's just doing it to a different backdrop on this album.
To be fair, this combination often works well. After years of making her cello parts literally play second fiddle to the Belle and Sebastian wall of sound, Isobel has finally made the orchestral the vibrant 'heart' of the record. Given the lyrical barbs aimed in Stuart Murdoch's direction on the last LP, this seems to be deliberate - the musical equivalent of sending a note saying 'hey, you can't shut me up!' and staking a claim at how integral Isobel was to the band. While the setting sometimes goes too far (the eccentric good time rag band of 'The Cat's Pyjamas' makes even Looper's back catalogue look 'normal'), Isobel's voice suits these new trad jazz/Italian film soundtrack lounge settings almost as well as her folk covers and proves once and for all what an adaptable voice she has, despite rarely raising it above a whisper.
Lyrically, though, this is undeniably a step backwards towards the blandness of 'The Green Fields Of Foreverland' after the intensity and honesty of 'A Swansong For You'. Isobel is suffering from exactly the same situation as Stuart during this period: after so many years when the relationship was the whole point of the band and after exorcising her demons and finger-pointing about where it went wrong, neither 'Belle' nor 'Sebastian' quite knows what to say next in 2003. After all, that album was meant as a proper 'goodbye' from the title on down (just as Stuart's 'Waking Up To Us' was meant as one): so how do you say another goodbye so soon afterwards? As a result, there's even more 'filler' here than the first album: dotty instrumentals that float past for a couple of minutes before disappearing and the actual 'songs' tend to float rather than sting as we're so used to hearing. That said, you can't simply remove a relationship that important from an artist and expect it not to show in their work simply because a tiny bit more time has passed. Album highlights 'Monologue For An Old True Love' and 'There Is No Greater Gold'  both approach the Murdoch relationship in a 'Swansong For You' style manner, but impressively given how fresh things must still have been for Isobel both try to find reconciliation and a thankfulness that the partnership happened at all. A lot of this album is as if Isobel has woken up from a long dream, one where she's suddenly realised that before the pair met she was a struggling student without many prospects even if she got her degree - and now, ten years on, she's a singer whose sold enough records to be signed by a brand new label. 'Amorino' is the sound of a writer whose still feeling slightly resentful but has realised she has a lot to be thankful for too - who'd have thought that the dark dark places of 'Ballad Of The Broken Seas'  would be just an album away? (with a first-trial for the album along next in this book?) The end result will please those who like Isobel's work sunny, but deeper than the rather bland sunny of 'Foreverland', although for those of us longing for another 'Swansong For You' it is a little bit of a backward step.
'Amorino' is a sweet starting point that's quite unlike anything Isobel has given us before now: harpsichord and flutes aren't usually natural bedfellows but sound rather good here. There aren't many lyrics, though, and half of those that are appear to be sung in French for some reason (the translation reads 'One day I'll take you to this cold country, where the summer was night rain constantly, , engulfed by winter and snuggled against you I'll tell you this desire that sustains') - your guess as to why that was sung in French is as good as mine...
'The Breeze Whispered Your Name' is a more upbeat version of the same idea, with some great stand-up bass and acoustic guitar work. Isobel tells us about her time 'pre-Murdoch': 'I never thought love would ever find me' she sings, before the 'breeze' whispered for her to follow a particular path where she met 'him'. A curious edgy instrumental middle hints that all is far from happy ever after, though, with some great use of a haunting flute phrase and a trumpet part best described as 'demented'. A sweet song, quite different to the vitriol of the last record, and one of the best on the album.
'Monologue For An Old True Love' is another highlight and rather less forgiving. 'Every time you miss the point yet every time you scold me, talking such self-righteously about everything you showed me' she sings, adding the fact that the figure she's leaving is 'wearing a guitar' to make sure we get the right picture. Isobel vows to 'haunt' Stuart in revenge for his knack of 'scoring points', but is calmer on a killer middle eight where she admits 'you brightened up the sun for me, even through the fights'. Love and betrayal are less clear-cut and more confused than in 'Swansong' , inspiring Isobel to one of her greatest lyrics and best ever vocals, caught somewhere between pain and revenge. Easily the album highlight.
'October's Sky' is a breezy, jazzy instrumental (with a touch of wordless sighing and Swingle Singers type scat singing) that sounds rather out of place here after the two most emotional songs on the album. The track would give the Dave Brubeck Quartet a run for their money, although quite how much Isobel has to do with the song is another matter.
'The Cat's Pyjamas' is even weirder, starting with an  extract of dialogue from the 1931 film adaptation of 'Frankenstein', with the mad doctor telling us all that's on his mind and how he wouldn't mind being 'crazy' if he could only work out one of the answers he seeks. Fittingly this song is a mad old collage of things that shouldn't fit given life and the second half of the song is a roaring twenties style dance routine with Isobel acting the part of a carefree 'flapper'. The inter-war years is clearly one of her favourite periods, although this is the most overt example of her love for the era to date and sounds deeply out of place her, despite sounding nicely authentic.
'Why Does My Head Hurt So?' is a second instrumental but this time one closer to the Belle and Sebastian style: it's very similar to the sort of thing that made the 'Storytelling' soundtrack in fact, bit with accordion instead of harmonica. Like most of that album, it sounds more like a backing track crying out for lyrics than a 'true' instrumental.
'Johnny Come Home' is a proper song at last, but a very generic one: Isobel sashes over a bossa nova backing which sounds like she's still thinking of Stuart and wondering when 'he's going to get home'. The love of her life is 'grazing on pastures new', the pair 'cut the cord' and 'words came violently, filling up the room'. Unfortunately this strong lyric is rather undone by the fake laidback uptempo backing, which doesn't come across as well as some of Isobel's other sting-in-the-tale songs.
'Poor Butterfly' is the best of the album's many instrumentals, a lovely flowing piano piece by Isobel with a terrific orchestral arrangement that as its title suggests is both haunting and fragile.
'Love For Tomorrow' is a rocky (well, by Isobel's standards) song about reconciliation. The song never quite makes it clear whether an old love is really there asking to come back or whether it's all what  Isobel's narrator wants to say to him were it ever to happen. Isobel's response? Contradictory:  'You mean the world to me, boy' has turned into 'My best occupation is letting life pass me by, loving is not my thing'. There's a nice hook and another great orchestral part on this song.
'There Is No Greater Gold' is the other album highlight: a slow elegiac song that tries to make sense of the past few fateful years. Isobel was waiting for a 'sign' and 'looking for some company', barely escaping the devil, when she meets her mysterious lover and 'angel' (surely Stuart again) for the first time. Then it all turns wrong just as suddenly, just as mysteriously, Isobel calmly telling him 'love, I don't think I'll see you again'. That said, the mood is conciliatory: Isobel spends a lovely middle eight reflecting on how she lucky she was compared to everyone she knows who missed out on those 'chances' that might have come their way and reflects on how the experience has left her happier than she was however sad she is now. Ultimately both the good and bad were 'meant this way' and she's learning from the lessons both have given her. A lovely lilting ballad, this is one of Isobel's finest songs so far.
'This Land Flows With Milk' isn't far behind either, a happy carefree love song with a lovely tune and a pretty piano phrase. Now firmly in love again, Isobel's narrator finds 'the moon and the stars at my feet' but is still less surprised at that than actually finding someone who genuinely cares for her. It's tempting to see this track as a reference to 'Tigermilk' (as in 'this land flows with tigermilk'), celebrating a mutually tough yet nurturing partnership that was full of the milk of human kindness on both sides. In keeping with the slight 'film' and 'horror' theme of the album, though, the instrumental in this song is played not by flute or cello but by a saw! (An old Hammer Studios trick!)
'Song For Baby' is a return to the 'bossa nova Hollywood' setting for one of the album's lesser moments that tries hard to be funky but falls on its feet rather. Isobel is at last looking forward to a new relationship and offers someone (herself?) advice: 'There are those who'll bring you love, sweet love, so listen up!'
'Time Is Just The Same' rounds out the album on a recording that points towards the future, being Isobel's first collaboration with Mark Lanegan (and which will be re-released in six months' time on the pair's first EP together). The song is a sweet but not terribly distinctive country-rocker most interesting for Mick Cooke's subtle horn part.
Overall, then, 'Amorino' is a frustrating album: half of it is easily amongst the best Isobel has ever done (with at least three of her greatest ever songs, for the band or outside it), but the rest is full of slick bossa nova style songs that sound deeply out of place and the rest is filler instrumentals - all of which makes for an eclectic but badly inconsistent LP. Still, when this album works it works very well indeed and after offering forgiveness, counting her blessings and working with her future muse and co-singer Mark Lanegan on the final track, Isobel ends the album in the happiest place she's been for some time. Which is why it's so surprising that coming up next is...


Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan "Time Is Just The Same" (EP)
(Snowstorm, April 2004)
Time Is Just The Same/Why Does My Head Hurt So?/Bordello Queen/Bang-Bang/The Breeze Whispered Your Name (Part Two)/Argomenti
"Here comes a chaos to surround us"
While Isobel had spent most of her career so far trying to create a 'Western' vibe, just when she's least expecting it in walks a real earthy sounding cowboy called Mark Lanegan to give her recordings the toughness they've been lacking. So shocked is Isobel, she even records a 'part two' for the song 'The Breeze Whispered Your Name' about fate doing funny things to you. Originally a vocalist with punk-rock group The Screaming Trees and later Queens Of The Stone Age, Mark's natural leanings were toward songs that were slower and more vulnerable - the sort of things Isobel had been writing in other words. Arrested for drug possession at the age of 18 and admitting later he'd done it deliberately as a cry for help to escape an abusive family, Mark had lived a far darker and wilder life than any of Belle and Sebastian. In time that will become a problem (Mark couldn't tour the pair's forthcoming 'Broken Seas' despite the strong radio play and reviews because he was in rehab), but for now it gives Isobel a whole new dimension to play with: a bad boy who sounds like he's had a bad life, rather than a breathy girl hiding her darker side in her lyrics. For it's worth pointing out that, despite the double billing, the very vast majority of the songs released on this EP and the three albums to come are all Isobel's work: in total Mark gets just one song ('Revolver') although he sings lead on a good 95% of the songs. In other words, it's the polar opposite of Belle and Sebastian, where Isobel simply sang the odd line that Stuart gave her (until 1998 at least) and whose angelic voice acted as a muse that brought out the gentler side in his writing.
For now, though, this EP seems half-finished (which might be why it was released as an EP rather than as the basis for an album), as if Isobel's only realised halfway through making it what a great opportunity this is for her writing skills. The title track had already been released and is nice but not essential. The same for 'Why Does My Head Hurt So?', an instrumental on which Mark wasn't even present. In truth, the only song worth seeking this EP out for is Isobel's solo interpretation of 'Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)', Sonny and Cher's tale of a childhood romance turned sour, as she remembers the way his pretend soldiers shot him down. Isobel slows the song right down, while guitarist Jim McCulloch's flamenco flourishes add a real touch of drama to the song. Better is to come. 


"Push Barman To Heal Old Wounds"
(Jeepster,  24th May 2005)
CD One: Dog On Wheels/The State I Am In (Demo)/String Bean Jean/Belle and Sebastian/Lazy Line Painter Jane/You Made Me Forget My Dreams/A Century Of Elvis/Photo Jenny/A Century Of Fakers/Le Pastie De La Bourgeoisie/Beautiful/Put The Book Back On The Shelf (unlisted: Songs For Children)
CD Two: This Is Just A Modern Rock Song/I Know Where The Summer Goes/The Gate/Slow Graffiti/Legal Man/Judy Is A Dick Slap/Winter Wooskie/Jonathan David/Take Your Carriage Clock And Shove It/The Loneliness Of A Middle Distance Runner/I'm Waking Up To Us/I Love My Car/Marx and Engels
"Show me please how I will look in twenty years..."
Review #1 (Done properly and briefly in 2014): By 2005 Belle and Sebastian's early EPs were becoming hard to find and the band still felt loyal to their old label Jeepster, who in 2005 were undergoing a bit of financial trouble (partly the reason the band had left in 2003). A 'proper' re-issue of those early EPs seemed like a natural idea and  on the back of the success of 'Waitress' sold remarkably well for a double-disc re-issue (peaking at #40 in the UK). The set proved remarkable value for money, containing no less than 26 tracks (with 'Song For Children' unlisted as per the original but included at the end of disc one) across two pretty full CDs. While Murdoch didn't write any new sleevenotes for this set, he did include all the originals ('Lazy Line' particularly is among his best) as well as all the lyrics and pictures of all the original sleeves (including Sarah and pet Beagle smiling on 'We're Waking Up To Us' and Isobel and Stevie going all James Bond on 'Legal Man'). He also took a photograph of the set's new cover: a graffitied pub fire exit sign, which was apparently re-created from one Stuart had seen at a Glasgow pub called the Vic when he was at art college (the words should of course be 'push bar to open' without the extra words). The result is an excellent compilation, particularly on the first CD where songs like 'Dog On Wheels' 'A Century Of Fakers' and 'Lazy Line Painter Jane' are the highlights not only of Belle and Sebastian's catalogue but my entire collection - although (now that I've re-bought it once more because it never did flipping turn up! - see below) even the second, later disc contains several songs bands would kill for including 'Legal Man' 'I'm Waking Up To Us' and 'I Love My Car' (Note: all the songs have already been reviewed singly earlier in this book under whatever year they were first released). Compare to the 'next' compilation of B-sides and EPs ('Third Eye Centre' in 2013) and weep. In fact we included 'Barman' as one of our 'initial' website core 101 reviews back in 2008 along with 'Tigermilk' - however that review went a little wrong as you can see...
Review #2 (Done less properly and decidedly less briefly in 2008): If only there was an invention for making your home grow bigger in tandem with your collection, the world would undoubtedly be a better place. As a result of my declining floor-space and piles of CDs and tapes that never quite made it to their proper homes in time for a spring-clean, there have been a teeny tiny small handful of casualties over the years. Somewhere out there, in the magic land where the pixies live, surrounded by missing pen lids and left socks, lives a few of my favourite CDS including my copy of the second CD of Push Barman To Heal Old Wounds. Anyway, my point is this. I can only review the first part of this great CD set because, well, I haven’t heard the second part for a long long time. I would leave this set out of the list but, well, the first half of it is just too good not to recommend. Luckily for both my sanity and your listening pleasure, it’s the first part I want to review anyway and rather than cheating the reader, it does seem fair to point out that there is a natural gap between the two halves of the set, with the songs on discs one and two released three years apart. Anyway, this review goes on for hours as it is without adding any more tracks to the mix. Before you point this out, I would go out and buy another copy of the album, especially as at the present time its amazingly still on catalogue and available in most shops, but unusually this set seems to be growing in price every year, not coming down into the bargain bins like it should. Also the last time I went and did exactly that (a new copy of Mona Bone Jakon to review for this very website, see review number 35) my old copy which had been missing for three years turned up suddenly the next day (I’m not kidding, it was blooming 14 hours after I bought the thing and it had been missing for 18 months, I counted!) The pixies must have a sense of humour, or really love my CD collection, or both, that’s all I’m saying (I'm still waiting for 'The Magical Pixie Realm' to appear on my stats geography counter, although personally I'm still convinced Moldova - where we seem to keep getting an awful lot of hits - isn't a real place either so perhaps they live there). So for now I’m just going to sit tight and draw lots of magic fairy circles around my CDs whilst bowing to the God of missing records (CeeDelia?) for its safe return – expect an update added to this site if it does!
Gripe over, you don’t really need to worry about the second CD anyway because while the later disc is an interesting curio it’s the first one you won’t be able to live without. Push Barman isn’t strictly an album you see – it’s a 2004 collection of tracks taken from EPs dating back to the very earliest stages of B and S’ development back in ’95-‘96.  For the under-40s, who might not know, an EP was an ‘extended player’ of three-to-five (but usually four) tracks which was king in the days of the 50s and 60s when people wanted to buy more than a single but couldn’t afford a whole LP (most record companies stopped selling them somewhere around 1970 but the CD format has resurrected it to some extent, with many ‘singles’ now offering two or three B-sides as added selling points. Interestingly, the ability to download individual tracks rather than whole albums mean the EP format is becoming even more common these days, with people owning a selection from an album rather than downloading the whole thing). It’s no co-incidence that two of the most ‘modern’ (the term is used loosely given that this album is already four years old) albums on this list are collections of oddities rather than high-falluting albums as such. Even more than in the 60s, a release by a big-name star (and even some smaller ones) has become an ‘event’, one heralded with a great deal of fuss that seems to drag on for months before and after an album’s release, with ever more pressure put on shoulders to succeed. When this happens, either an album will be so over-publicised and so successful that everyone will know about their origins—or they’re so terrible that they just get buried before the next trail-blazing best-seller comes along to steal their thunder. Very generally speaking, the best tracks for most artists – those that most represent the ‘heart’ of a band and what makes them different to anyone else without having to make a sop to whatever is in fashion at the time of release – are more and more likely these days to appear on B-sides and EPs, where bands don’t have to worry so much about what’s ‘in’ and doing their best to sound like what everybody else is doing. B-sides are a chance to experiment and divert ideas and writing templates down new, exciting roads. When an artist gets it wrong its horrible, music cul-de-sacs that sound like so much of a mess you wonder if they could possibly be by the same people who’ve just provided you with that awesome single you heard on the radio. When an artist gets it right, B-sides can be wonderfully exciting, offering far more promise than a carefully tailor-made A-side, with much more energy and a naturalness that offsets the experimental vein the tracks are in.
Belle and Sebastian gave in to record company pressure less than most (their label Jeepster remains one of the few labels that regularly releases ‘off-cut’ experimental albums in the vein of self-made companies like the Beatles’ Apple or Grateful Dead Records that folded a long time ago). However the band’s early EP tracks have a spirit and a bite that gradually gets lost a few years down the line, with the band’s distinguishable style firmly in place but with more curiosity about new sounds going on somewhere too. These EPs give B and S the chance to show off their wide spectrum of sounds; from rough early demos for important album tracks to some weird off-the-wall monologues about dogs called Elvis to some equally bemusing and confusing sleeve-notes, the bizarre and unusual is placed side-by-side with some of the most characteristic and most carefully mapped-out Belle and Sebastian tracks the band ever made. Stuart Murdoch is on great form, performing many of these songs solo on a piano. His lyrics are particularly strong on this collection, reading more like the mini-novelettes he writes about than traditional songs with verses and choruses, but featuring such gorgeous flowing melodies that they pass for great pop songs too. The rest of the band do Murdoch proud too, though, here more than on most releases, with the beginnings of the band’s democratic policy allowing guitarist Stevie Jackson and multi-instrumentalist Isobel Campbell a chance to shine from time to time. However, in common with most B and S albums, the band members don’t get a single writing or performance credit between them.
Push Barman is an intriguing release more because of what B and S don’t do with this album than what they do with it. Most bands with ideas this strong (modern inhabitants of modern cities left behind in the rush that everyone else seems to take to so naturally; confused outsiders trapped between falsehood and mundanity; the thin line between fantasy and reality, with the characters forever taking off on flights of fancy straight after verses of detailed observations of real life) release records with a great deal of record company ballyhoo, advertising strengths that albums just don’t have in a desperate attempt to sell records. This set crept out quietly, not once but twice: the first time around EPs were unusual products to market to say the least and came out at a time when the band had yet to reach out to most of their cult fan base. The second time around, with collectors clamouring for the middling-selling EPs to add to their collections, this double CD set came out without a fuss, suddenly appearing in record shop CD racks one day. Any other artists, even a cult one like B and S, would have gone to town over the fact that some of the band’s earliest and rarest records were suddenly getting a proper release (editor - compare with the fuss over the less essential 'Third Eye Centre', more or less hailed as a 'proper' album). With B and S—who as ever did so few interviews for the record as to be practically mute—you had to keep your eyes peeled to know this set was out at all. But if ever a band were meant to be a cult, decidedly apart from the mainstream and passing trends, Belle and Sebastian are it and their adventures on this set are even purer and less tainted by passing whims than normal. A brave release, full of wrong notes, off key vocals and performed throughout with one-take bravado, the band do all they can to disguise their talents here and yet they still come shining through loud and clear. Not many people know about this set and it didn’t even influence people to the same extent as band LPs  Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister, but these three EPs are the true ’heart’ of the band and a s a result one of the most important releases of the decade so far.
Whilst they will remain a cult favourite to the end probably, B and S’ followers are growing 10-fold with every release as word of their music gets out, so it's fair to say that at this rate the band will be taking over the planet by about 2050. Well, I can think of worse things that might happen – with their pertinent social commentary and strong belief in making the planet a better place B and S would make the greatest world leaders after CSNY (two of which genuinely did stand for American presidency by the way – how the hell did Bush beat them; bet he can’t even spell déjà vu never mind write about it?!) Whether pretty pop or daring protest songs is your thing, this album is more than worth a listen and a wonderful virtual soul-mate to own when the modern world is getting you down and you seem to be the only sane being on the planet. Press play to heal old wounds. 

"If You're Feeling Sinister: Live At The Barbican"
(Rough Trade, Recorded September 26th 2005, Released December 6th 2005)
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
"If we all went back to another time, I would love you over"
Re-visiting complete albums live was the 'in-thing' of the mid 2000s: Brian Wilson was touring 'Pet Sounds', various members of Pink Floyd were doing 'The Dark Side Of The Moon' and even The Monkees had a go at 'HEAD'. For passionate rather an casual fans (i.e. me it was a drag: a band's most famous album is only rarely the best they actually made; generally speaking they tend to be the albums that happened to hit a particular nerve that made them perfect for their times (or in other words, making them the least suitable albums ever for re-visiting years later). 'Sinister' is a slightly different case, however: you could hardly accuse an alum that actually never charted of being 'over-played' and given how few people were attending Belle and Sebastian's earliest gigs this short 2005 tour offered a good chance to hear more than just the highlights of the album live.
The trouble is that the Belle and Sebastian of 2005 is a very different beast to the band of nine years earlier (and how very B and S not to simply wait a year and get extra publicity for a big anniversary!): they're slicker, slightly more practised in what they're doing and with the major losses of Isobel Campbell and Stuart David in the line-up. The songs that were just so mid-1990s (bad times about to become good, someday) sound more naive in 2005 somehow, when 9/11 Bush and Blair taught us all much more to be cautious. In other ways, though, time hasn't yet moved on enough. Usually a 'big event' like this can get away with it because mums and dads and maybe grandmas and grandads are taking their off-spring to re-experience their favourite music at roughly the age they were; but here it's only been half-a-generation: enough time for fans to realise just how special this album was but not yet time enough for them to long to hear it all played live again.
Even what's here could be better. Most of the chat - often the best part of a B and S gig - has all been cut off (presumably for a more 'flowing' - read 'boring' - listening experience), the only lyrical change is Stuart's cheeky 'remember Roxy Music in 1972' instead of 'all the hippies' in 'Me and the Major' and there's no real great innovation in the arrangements which sound just like the original, only slightly clumsier for the most part.  The band still sound nicely raw in places and the chance to hear Stuart and Stevie sing in harmony (something they didn't do much of on the album, when they still barely knew each other) is welcome, with some great 'extended jams' on a couple of tracks (like 'Seeing Other People' and 'Like Dylan In The Movies') that really fly. 'Mayfly', a bit of a wayward performance on the original, is even an improvement.
However what once sounded fresh and daring now seems like a fading memory, with the band remembering rather than living the songs - great for the lucky audience who are there hearing their favourite band playing their favourite pieces, but losing something in the translation to a CD. As in the case of a lot of these 'for posterity' live recordings, you ultimately end up thinking 'what's the point?' when for a cheaper price you can own the 'original' LP to play instead? A nice curio, but no substitute for either the original album or tickets to see the band in action - chances are any of their more random selections of songs are more interesting than what's here anyway. Or perhaps I'm just grumpy because the band didn't do 'Tigermilk' - after all, the audience clearly loves it...


"Late Night Tales"
 (Late Night Tales,  February 27th 2006)
Gratuitous Theft In The Rain (Rehash)/How Long Blues (Jimmy and Mama Yancey)/Here's What's Left (RJD2)/Questions (Lootpack)/O My Friends You've Been True To Me (Demis Roussos)/French Disko (Stereolab)/On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (The Peddlars)/Cissy Strut (The Butch Cassidy Sound System)/Ring Of Fire (Johnny Cash)/Free Man (The Ethiopians) /Do You Really Want To Rescue Me? (Elsie Mae)/It's An Uphill Climb (To The Bottom) (Walter Jackson)/I'm In Your Hands (Mary Love)/Cos Specjalnego (Novi Singers)/Lost In The Paradise (Gal Costa)/People Make The World Go Round (Innerzone Orchestra)/ Uhuru (Ramsey Lewis)/Fly Like An Eagle (Steve Miller Band)/Get Thy Bearings (Donovan)/Green Grass Of Tunnel (Mum)/Casaco Marron (Belle and Sebastian)/Taireva (Zimbabwe Shona Mbira Music)/Let Your Consience Be Your Giidance (Space Jam)/Watch The Sunrise (Big Star)/Badinerie (Orchestral Suite no 2 in B Minor) (J.S. Bach performed by Boston Baroque)/When I Was A Little Girl (David Shrigley)
"It's okay to look outside"
The 'Late Night Tales' series (created in 2001 and still going today and now at 26 volumes, tries to offer fans of particular bands access to relatively obscure songs they might not otherwise hear. The format is that a particular band act as 'DJ' for the night, spinning a series of tracks that either greatly inspired by them or which they feel deserve wider recognition, along with an 'exclusive' cover to pull in fans. Being well known as 'music fans' as well as simply musicians (especially Stuart and Stevie) and semi-regular DJs themselves between tours anyway (especially Stevie and Chris), Belle and Sebastian were obvious choices for the format and in fact this first volume was so popular and sold so many copies that Late Night Tales took the unprecedented step of asking Belle and Sebastian back for a second volume in 2012 (the only band they have to date). In total B and S were the 14th band to take part in the series, following such luminaries as Jamiroqui and The Flaming Lips and although I haven't heard everything in the series by any means this first volume by B and S is by far the best of the ones I have heard.
Interestingly, while Murdoch tends to talk about 1980s indie bands like Orange Juice and Felt when discussing his favourite songs, these tracks have a distinctly 1950s and 1990s feel and instead of 'cult' bands alternate between famous mega-stars and artists you'll never ever hear of. My favourite songs happen to be 1960s anyway, with Big Star's 'Waiting For The Sun Rise' and Johnny Cash's 1963 hit 'Ring Of Fire' the highlights, but then those songs are closer to my own taste (as anyone whose limped through our AAA articles online will know). Interestingly, the genre that comes over most is a kind of Spanish/latin american lilt (particularly Belle and Sebastian's Sarah-lead cover of 'Casaco Marron') - which explains where Mick Cooke's trumpet parts come from but isn't an 'obvious' element of the B and S sound (actually its closer to what Isobel and Mark Lanegan get up to on their duets albums, although she's long gone by 2006). As for 'Casaco', it's nice to hear the band so far out of their depth and any chance to hear the under-used Sarah is always welcomed, but this Brazilian song about an old brown coat bringing up nostalgic memories (! See below!) should be sung by someone a lot older and tougher. In short, you're not missing much if you don't own it, but if you've ever wondered what a Mariachi-Spanish-Brazilian hybrid Belle and Sebastian cover might sound like then this is your chance. The same is true for the compilation as a whole really: you don't learn an awful lot about Belle and Sebastian from this project and you don't really need to go out of your way to hear it, but it's quite enjoyable as compilation albums go and makes a change from hearing the same songs all the time. The cover - an umbrella upside down shot at night - is also pretty good, being similar to other slightly wacky entries in the series (which include chandeliers and toys at dusk - a shame there wasn't a 'dog on wheels' here really!), whilst being in keeping with the Belle and Sebastian imagery (where 'weather' and 'umbrellas' appear frequently!)

Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan: "Ballad Of The Broken Seas"
 (V2 Records,  'March' 2006)
Deus Ibi Est/Black Mountain/The False Husband/Ballad Of The Broken Seas/Revolver/Ramblin' Man/(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me?/Saturday's Gone/It's Hard To Kill A Bad Thing/Honey Child, What Can I Do?/Dusty Wreath/The Circus Is Leaving Town
"You were such a good girl then"
After a couple of false-starts with the Billy Wells album and an EP with Mark Lanegan, Isobel finally goes the whole way and makes a complete album in the same way that Stuart Murdoch once 'used' her: most reviewers and fans who'd never heard of Isobel in 2006 missed the point but Isobel is the creator here and Mark her 'muse', inspiring her to write songs that are dark and gritty and urban; a far cry from her role in B and S as the breathy sunny one. As we've seen, the change from muse to creator is a huge one but Isobel goes one step further here on perhaps her second most-successful album to date and completely re-invents herself from a vulnerable romantic to a dark and desperate desperado on the run from the darkness in her soul. Although Mark sings largely throughout the album, with his gravelly voice automatically making the songs sound darker and nastier, it's Isobel whose firmly in charge, writing nine songs to Mark's one (alongside two covers). This gives Isobel free reign to indulge in her darker side without having to change her singing style - instead throughout most of the album her angelic voice sounds like a taunt to yet another Lanegan-voices victim, destroyed by love, the law, the bottle or all three.
There's undoubtedly a chemistry between the two despite their very different backgrounds and polar opposite voices (Mark really is a tortured soul, who famously didn't show on the first night of the tour to promote the album because he was in rehab, yearning to do good despite his start in a 'grunge' band, quite different to B and S' acoustic early songs, while Isobel is turning into the epitome of the good girl turned bad in this era). That's actually quite amazing given that the pair never sang together for this album: she was afraid to leave Glasgow - he never got it together to fly out of America (their next two albums will be done side by side though). The public certainly seemed to like it, with the album reaching a UK peak of #38 (higher than all but the two most recent Belle and Sebastian studio albums) and inspiring the pair to make a further pair of albums later. The critics too, generally liked it - comparing the album to Nick Cave getting together with Kyle Minogue, although truly Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra is more like it (with Isobel in the 'Lee' role), getting away with stuff Mark wouldn't on his own because its accompanied by Isobel's little-girl-lost voice.
Despite the album cover of the pair in a hotel room, apparently not speaking to each other, its' the later albums where the pair tend to act like a 'married couple' growing apart. This album is all about internal monologues about guilt and sin, with Isobel acting as either the 'conscience' or 'devil' running amok in Mark's head, her whispering voice often hard to hear against his growl. Despite being made largely in Glasgow, this is also quite an 'American' flavoured album: like Isobel's solo and 'Gentle Waves' records but more so this is a 'Western', the soundtrack of a film filled with slow building peaks of sound, gongs, stuttering guitars and lots of 'air'. Unlike 'Swansong For You' though (which was the sound of a duel about to take place), this album has the feel of a post-shooting, with an atmosphere of relief tinged with sadness and fear at a next one coming along. 'Do You Wanna Come Walk With Me?' is the closest Isobel has ever come to writing a love song, the pair of singers' voices dancing around each other in a way that resoundingly says 'yes!' However songs like Mark's 'Revolver'  and especially the album closer 'The Circus Is Leaving Town' return to the river of Isobel's emotions and offer yet more pained goodbyes to an old part of her life. Without the theme and autobiography of 'A Swansong For You' 'The Ballad Of Broken Seas' was never likely to scale the same heights and unlike that album there are some lesser songs here that don't quite come off (('Saturday's Gone' is melancholia too far and opener 'Deus Ibi Est' tries to hard to create an artificial atmosphere of threat). However 'Broken Seas' is another strong record on which both creator and muse deserve a bow - just as in Belle and Sebastian's early days.
'Deus Ibi Est' is a story-song that features Mark croacking his way through a series of prose that we'd normally expect Isobel to race through in her high-pitched voice. The character has hit rock bottom, called up to fight a war he doesn't believe in and 'beating a march to someone else's drum'  (is this another Campbell song about having to fit into the B and S format?) Some of the lyrics are a little over-forced ('Oh demons I shall shame you!') while other songs do a better job at conjuring up a jagged atmosphere. Already the combination of voices is working well, however.
'Black Mountain' sounds like a traditional marching song but is apparently a Campbell original (even if it sounds suspiciously similar to 'Early In The Spring'), with a man so full of passion he 'flew into the sun' and a dog 'much blacker than night' who ';lives in a house where nothing is right'. The catchy chorus ('Lie! True! Lie! True!') is a clever idea, as is the slightly creepy backing full of lurking menace and shadows (the song is played on the 7th note of the key which never quite resolves throughout the song and give 'release', an old songwriting trick but very cleverly used here all the same)
'The False Husband' is another song of betrayal and bitterness that may be again aimed in Murdoch's direction, with such digs as 'your tongue was working overtime' and 'something fought and died today'. Although Campbell wrote every line, mixing them between her and Mark works really well, as if two sides of a couple are  aiming these songs at each other instead of one not giving the other chance to reply. The pair even sing their parts 'over' each other during a chorus that once again sounds like a pure Western.
'Ballad Of The Broken Seas' title track has a drunk trying to stop drinking because his doctor's ordered him to, but the idea depresses him so much he reaches for the bottle. Isobel may still be singing about Stuart here, with his often used metaphor of the 'sun' being used here by his ex to sum up their once inextinguishable energy: 'we fucked up the sun into kingdom come'. A little over-dramatic compared to other songs, this is actually one of the lesser tracks on the album.
Mark's 'Revolver' sadly isn't a tribute to the finest Beatles LP but a tale of how hurt and loss reaches places even bullets can't match. The song is notably similar to Isobel's writing style, though, with the idea that 'we're missing something, don't know what it was' and that only the other person has the power to pull the trigger.
Hank Williams' famous 'Ramblin' Man' sounds strangely at home amongst the country-tinged songs of loss on this album, although Mark strains rather too hard to hit the higher notes he needs. Isobel's electronically treated voice then takes up a counter-vocal that sounds rather mocking in this new arrangement and works very well. In all, not a bad cover with Geoff Allen securing what must be a unique album credit (for 'whip'!)
Isobel's '(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me?' is a shy invitation to romance, not just a walk, with the pair of vocalists now sober and happy, with the 'pathway of light' separating the pair's rooms a symbol of light in a whole new sense. This suits Isobel, whose used to doing this sort of thing, but Mark just sounds croaky. The single acoustic guitar accompaniment works really well though.
'Saturday's Gone' is Isobel back in breathy mood for a song that's rather hard to hear. That's a shame because both tune and lyric are pretty good, Isobel doing a good job at copying Murdoch's writing style with a character whose 'not like other girls' but has 'demons up her skirt'. Before too long the relationship has turned into the sound of a roaring lion and the look of a slithering snake, however.
'It's Hard To Kill A Bad Thing' is an instrumental by guitarist Jim McCulloch (sadly no relation to the Wings guitarist) whose playing has been a highlight of many of these songs. The result is nice, with a strong riff and a counter-melody played by strings just as in the days of old whilst being understandably heavy on guitar, but might have been best left as a B-side or EP track and doesn't really fit in on such an emotionally charged and lyrical album.
Isobel's 'Honey Child, What Can I Do?' is slightly more upbeat than normal, with two characters hoping for a better tomorrow. There's even a very Beatley chorus ('Maybe I'm a stupid fool...'), but sadly this rather slight and repetitive song never quite takes wing.
'Dusty Wreath' is Isobel alone at the piano on another near-instrumental that contains just two lines, repeated once ('Oh dusty wreath, your loving was everything to me'). It's another song that might have been better kept in the vaults, although it offers a useful chance to hear what might be Isobel's songwriting taking place before our ears (she plucks out the melody, gingerly, doubles it more confidently, then sings the vocals off-key, suggesting this is a rehearsal tape). No one else but Isobel appears.
Isobel's album finale 'The Circus Is Leaving Town' picked up a lot of radio airplay I remember and sums the album up quite well: Mark's depressed, everything's over and things have to change. This song would have fitted in well on 'A Swansong For You' and again has the idea that what was once an 'empty page' has been filled and is over for good. 'You were such a good girl then' Mark mockingly sings, seemingly unaware that its Isobel writing that line to herself, wondering at how tame and malleable she used to be before learning a 'different beat, a different tune'. This sad song is a strong way to end the album but runs out of steam surprisingly early and perhaps needed another middle eight or change of pace or even a counter-vocal from Isobel to fully come alive.
Still, even if this collaboration isn't perfect it does have chemistry and shows both singers in a good light, allowing Isobel to be taken seriously as a writer and letting Mark have something to get his teeth into as a singer. An album made for the twilight hours when you can't sleep and everything is going wrong, 'The Ballad Of The Broken Seas' is sometimes boring but often moving and as neat an answer to Isobel's increasingly desperate search for a new direction as she could have found. Dare I say it, I actually prefer this album to the 'Life Pursuit' record out the same year.

Isobel Campbell "O Love Is Teasin' (EP)
 (V2 Records,  'May' 2006)
O Love Is Teasin'/Yearning/Nottamun Town/Lady Of Snakes /Barbara Ellen/Black Is The Colour/Dabbling In The Dew
"Sure as an acorn grows from a seed"
For the third time in her career, this is Isobel trying out a new idea in bite-size EP form before going head-first into a whole new album. This time Isobel's new discovery is folk music - the traditional songs that all good folk singers used to know off-pat in the early 1960s. For the album proper ('Milkwhite Sheets', see below) Isobel will mix and match old tales about doomed maidens and unscrupulous young men with some of her own songs on the same subjects and will tend towards the obscurer songs from the folk idiom. That's not true here: of these songs only 'Yearning' is an original and both that and the comparatively obscure title track will make it to the album. The rest is the sort of thing you'll hear on any good folk anthology: 'Nottamun Town' was made famous by 'Fairport Convention'. 'Barbara Ellen' was recorded by just about everybody (including a nice version by fellow AAA stars Simon and Garfunkel, recorded in 1965 but unreleased till the 21st century). And 'Black Is The Colour' should have been: this gorgeous Appalachian Mountain folk tune is a terrific choice, even if Isobel's lacks the harmonies of most versions (The King's Singers do it best, although Paul Weller's interpretation from 2006 ain't bad). The result is a little uneven: without the length of the album this is too generous for an EP but not different enough to be an entity in its own right and you wonder why Isobel didn't simply stick two songs out as a single and stick everything here onto 'Milkwhite'. Still, as with the full record, Isobel demonstrates a real knack for singing folk which none of us I don't think were expecting at the time and pulls off some very good versions of most of the songs here.

Isobel Campbell "Milkwhite Sheets"
 (V2 Records,  October 23rd 2006)
O Love Is Teasin'/Willow's Song/Yearning/James/Hori Horo/Reynardine/Milkwhite Sheets/Catchel Wood/Beggar Wiseman Or Thief?/Loving Hannah/Are You Going To Leave Me?/Over The Wheat and Barley/Thursday's Child/Bird In The Wood
"Sweet as a wind in the heather"
The clues seemed big that this was going to be a 'return' to the old days for Isobel: the title loosely sounds like 'Tigermilk' and interviews before the album revealed this was a 'concept' album based around the work of three female folk writers: Jean Ritchie, Anne Briggs and Shirley Collins. However, this largely traditional folk songs album (with six new songs by Campbell and one by friend and guitarist Jim McCulloch) is folky in a completely different way to the Belle and Sebastian sound and is more like something Bert Jansch or Roger McGuinn would do than what we expected from Isobel. In many ways that's a good thing: Isobel gets the chance to play around with her vocals a lot on this album, using double-tracking and stereo panning to make her 'breathy' style sound more substantial here. The backing is often great too, especially the chiming scary ride that is folk standard 'Are You Going To Leave Me?', turned from a simple lament into a turbulent epic. Campbell also has a real feel for a lot of the genre, modernising a lot of these traditional songs and making them sound contemporary-yet-timeless in a 'Pentangle' type manner. As a learning experience, this is a great one and while none of Isobel's later albums really use a lot of this album's 'feel' or textures, you feel she took a lot of confidence from having made it.
However, Isobel is a better composer than a vocalist, which makes the choice of a mainly covers album a rather odd one. What's more, the 'new' songs Campbell did write for this record aren't amongst her best, being either instrumentals or poor attempts at re-capturing the 'sing-songy' old style folk lament. A lot of this record feels as if its refusing to go anywhere near the Murdoch love-story - but the wounds are still so fresh that Isobel hasn't quite worked out where to go next. Released so soon after the ocean of emotion that was 'The Ballad Of The Broken Seas' and that's a shame: it's like finding a novelist you really like who follows up a 700-page book you really loved with a novella of no real substance; yes its clever in its own way but it's no substitute for where their talents really lie. Ah well, Isobel can do what she wants I suppose, jut think of this as a sort of extra snack in a busy year rather than a main course. Note: two of the songs had already appeared on the above EP (though sadly EP highlight 'Black Is The Colour' isn't here) but are reviewed 'properly' here.
The traditional 'O Love Is Teasin' would be lovely if we could hear Isobel properly instead of hidden behind a tonne of echo (even Stevie would have warped at this much reverb). The guitar and Isobel's voice are lovely though on a song about finding love isn't quite what you thought it was.
'Willow's Song' is by Paul Giovanni (a film soundtrack writer best known for 'The Wicker Man'), although the tone is pure 'Fold Your Hands, Child' - complete with slightly out-of-earshot voices, creepy violins and backward gongs. We don't know who Willow is but she tries to lure the listener in with a 'stroke as light as a feather', which is nice of her.
Isobel's own 'Yearning' has the neat analogy 'dreams are for knowing, seeds are for sowing, ebbing and flowing, while my love is glowing' on an impressionistic song  with some lovely cello parts but which never quite settles down.
Isobel also wrote about the mysterious 'James', presumably her friend and frequent side-guitarist Jim McCulloch who plays lead on this lovely instrumental even though Isobel (who gets the credit) doesn't appear. Things go a bit pear-shaped around the middle when guitar and orchestra go a little out of synch with each other, but the first half of the piece is a lovely mesh of two melodies joined together by light percussion.
The traditional 'Hori Horo' is one of the most successful songs on the album, with Isobel's angelic voice well suited to a tale of sweet and innocent love in the Scottish highlands, where the narrator's boyfriend is 'sweet as a wind in the heather'.
'Reynardine' is also traditional and a song much covered (Bert Jansch did it too). The funny name belongs to a funny rogue who lures a maiden to his castle and has his wicked ways with her. Alas this isn't one of the better versions of this old folk song and lacks Isobel's usual capacity for the unexpected.
McCulloch provided the title track of 'Milkwhite Sheets', a moody instrumental for guitar and cello that really shows off how well Isobel can play her 'first' instrument' but is in danger of falling into 'Pentangle noodling instrumental' territory, without any sense of urgency or desire to link this piece back to the album.
'Cachel Wood' sounds like an oldie but is actually a new song by Isobel that features some lovely ye olde lyrics ('An everlasting fire imperishing when leaves decay') but unfortunately rips off the tune to 'Pop Goes The Weasel' so obviously you half expect to hear a 'popping' noise.
Isobel also wrote 'Beggarman, Wiseman Or Thief?' about another evil man luring a true maiden off the straight and narrow before she gets stopped in her tracks with the great line 'To a wolf you cannot be wed - choose a young man instead!' This song is nice but slight and needs more backing than a simple guitar part and yet more unsuitable echo.
'Loving Hannah' is sung a capella and features Isobel in the 'male' part, with a maiden capturing the narrator's eye during a church service one day. I've always rated Isobel a better singer than most B and S fans often do and her voice is quite delightful here, although a full three minutes without variation will test the patience of many.
The album highlight is undoubtedly 'Are You Going To Leave Me?' Multiple Isobels dreamily drift in and out of the ghostly track as the song builds layer by layer and creates quite a crescendo by the end: first McCulloch un-tunes his acoustic guitar, then a series of rolling drums and finally a collection of deep bass piano notes with the 'echo' pedal down hard and loud create a quite hypnotic, other-worldly state. If only the rest of the album had been as inventive as this 'Milkwhite Sheets' might have sat at the top of a prestigious 'folk' tree alongside Pentangle 'Basket Of White' and the early Byrds albums.
'Over The Wheat and Barley' is a mournful cello instrumental credited to Isobel , which would have been really lovely with some lyrics to go with it. At least this piece sounds like a folk classic from years ago, though, with Isobel now at one with the genre.
Closing epic 'Thursday's Child' is more like Isobel's 'normal' work and returns to the semi-autobiography of her 'Gentle Waves' albums.  'Twenty-five years living in a fantasy - better choose reality' she sighs (for the record she was 30 when the album came out), reflecting on an enjoyable time spent on a 'ferris wheel' before it all turned to 'ashes' and left her without a ride. The chorus then has Isobel as a  'Thursday child' with 'far to go', mournfully trying to trace her way back down a path that once brought her so much happiness. This other album highlight is a truly effecting track with Isobel's vocal now shorn of it's innocence and joined by a mournful pedal steel and percussion so slow it sounds like it's physically stomping on her dreams. 'No regrets, won't forget' is the closing line, but it doesn't sound as if Isobel means it.
A 'hidden track' then arrives after a minute or so silence, apparently named 'Bird In The Wood' while it was worked on in the studio. A slight 45 second fragment accompanied by a musical box type accompaniment, it simply bids us 'goodnight' and would have made a fine song in it's own right.
So ends a highly unusual and only partly successful album, one where Isobel reveals the folk roots we never even knew she had and throws in one of her deepest, most moving songs right at the end to keep us guessing. The folk backing is though exactly right for conveying the heartbreak Isobel's been writing about of late - it's just a shame there isn't more of it on this album, which tends to take the 'easy' way out and simply give us folk songs about maidens and suitors or new songs that sound like old ones about maidens and suitors! We'll pick Isobel's story up in a couple of years when she's back making the soundtrack for non-existent Westerns in a couple of years' time...


Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan: "Sunday At Devil Dirt"
 (V2 Records,  May 13th 2008)
Seafaring Song/The Raven/Salvation/Who Built The Road?/Come On Over (Turn Me On)/Back Burner/The Flame That Burns/Shotgun Blues/Keep Me In Mind, Sweetheart/Something To Believe/Trouble/Sally Don't You Cry
Deluxe Edition Bonus Disc #1 (Live): Revolver/Carry Home/Willow's Song/Sand/(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me?/The Circus Is Leaving Town/Ramblin' Man
Deluxe Edition Bonus Disc #2 (Studio): Keep Me In MInd Sweetheart/Fight Fire With Fire/Asleep On A Sixpence/Violin Tango/Rambling Rose, Clinging Vine/Hang On
"
Isobel and Mark's second album sounds like much of a collaboration this time around, even though Isobel still does most of the writing and Mark the singing. 'Sunday At Devil Dirt' was written by Campbell with Mark's voice in her 'head' for the first time and instead of recording their parts an ocean apart, Mark flew to Glasgow specially so they could do their vocals together (Isobel will return the compliment next time around and actually has never left the States since). If anything the mood is darker this time around, as Isobel makes the most of Mark's gravelly voice and a mood that's very much moody monochrome rather than glittering colour. To use our cowboy analogy, it's the moment of high drama when a cowboy has just shot his gun, but doesn't yet know if he's hit anything or whether he'll be hit first in response. Much of the album sounds like the effect seen in many cowboy films where the whole film sounds as if its running in slow motion, in fact, what with the slow, barely moving and Mark's deepest vocals yet.
The result is arguably the weakest of the pair's full-album collaborations, lacking the newness and invention of 'Broken Seas' without the eclecticism of 'Hawk'. It's still a good album with many highlights, though, highlighted by the pair of songs written by Isobel's occasional collaborator Jim McCulloch which add an austere acoustic vibe to the record in between all the orchestral polish (making this record sound not unlike Johnny Cash's 'America' series with producer Rick Rubin before his death in this same period). Everything else here, though is Isobel's, with Mark not writing anything for this album. A full album like this might have been better still. The theme of it - fittingly given how Mark has had to come to make it - is travel, with the cowboy narrators not as fussed about their love life and prospects but caught up in the drama of upheaval and pastures new, wondering if they will ever see the places they used to know so well again.
 Considering that the album is all of eight years old, it hasn't half been re-issued a lot over the years: a deluxe edition released alongside the original contains a seven-track concert made up of songs from the first album (of which only a slightly more histrionic 'Ramblin' Man' is particularly different), while a later edition from 2010 features five songs from the album sessions that were never released at the time, occasionally known colloquially to fans as the 'Keep Me In Mind, Sweetheart' EP after the opening track, even though technically it was never released separately from the album. Of these the hopeful cowboy song 'Fight Fire With Fire' and the nicely poppy 'Rambling Rose, Clinging Vine' are easily the best, although none are exactly long lost classics with instrumental 'Violin Tango' positively painful.
Back to the album proper, though, and 'Seafaring Song' seems a strange place to start. 'I've travelled the world...but still further to roam' Mark drawls, reflecting on the old days when he was settled and happy: 'that was so long ago'. This track is best described as slow-building tension, but it would have been nice to have a little more happening.
'The Raven' is better, an atmospheric song with an especially eerie string arrangement on a tale that quotes from Edgar Allan Poe's famous poem. The raven, here with a broken wing, clearly signifies death so the narrator runs amok with (so its hinted) an under-age mistress, finally collapsing and dying while 'the warning bell was knelling'. Mark has never sounded more like Lee Hazelwood than here.
'Salvation' is the album's quiet highlight, with a wasted and weary Lanegan finally enjoying the peace he thought he would never find. 'I went out in that bad old world to roam, and I felt like a stranger coming home' sighs Mark as Isobel prettily hums alongside him on a song written by guitarist Jim McCulloch.
'Who Built The Road? is a rumination over God and whether his plans really involved such misery for the narrators. By the end, though, the narrators don't believe in deities - they reckon the road was built by 'all of us, on a chain gang with our bare hands', human beings struggling within their own pain. Mark and Isobel sing together at last on another of the album's better songs.
'Come On Over (Turn Me On)' is another slow-burning song with a strong string part running through it with the narrators turning to each other so they can 'know right from wrong'. Both Mark and Isobel sound like they're heading down a dangerous path to me, though, on a song that promises much but never quite takes fire.
'Back Burner' is, at least, different to anything else the pair have done. Fading in on a shuffling tribal chant of the title Mark gets increasingly hysterical in his pleas 'I won't let you down...promise you I'll stick around'. Unfortunately this song tends to stick in its groove rather than finding a new one and doesn't really make much of an impression.
'The Flame That Burns' sounds like a spiritual, reflecting on how humans have an innate ability to get through pain and hardship due to something indefinable inside that 'burns'. There's a fun hook on this one and a great solo from McCulloch, but again the chorus is repeated a few too many times for comfort and ends up making 'Flame' sound a bit wet.
'Shotgun Blues' is a gutbucket blues and not a terribly convincing one either, with an electronically-treated Isobel trying to sound like a 'siren' luring her man to his death. There's an awful lot of double entendres in this song ('I'm layin' on my bed, so you better take that shotgun and fill it full of lead'), which is at least different (had Isobel been listening to similarly risque B and S B-side 'Meat and Potatoes'?!), but again this song gets stuck in its groove far too quickly and won't get out. Mark most likely doesn't appear.
'Keep Me In Mind, Sweetheart' was the album's single and one of the album's better songs. Reverting to the acoustic once more, Mark sings most sweetly on a song that sounds like Isobel has written it after Lanegan's 'collapse' during the first tour and in hope that the pair will work together again. Promising to be there whatever happens, Isobel makes the most of what she learnt from her folk album 'Milkwhite Sheets' on a lovely song of devotion and support.
'Something To Believe' is nice too, another acoustic song that sounds more 'finished' than a lot of the album. The lyrics talk about 'another season where I will sit and grieve' and time spent in slumber and daydreams 'weary of heart, weary of soul weary of mind'. However the mood is quite upbeat too, with a lovely counter-melody from Isobel acting as Mark's conscience and telling him that 'when you fall there'll be another star'. Another album highlight.
The mournful 'Trouble' makes it three straight excellent songs in a row, with Isobel and Mark wearily singing over a troubled minor key guitar, pulsating bass and shuffling percussion how 'I haven't slept a day in years' (did Isobel think of Stuart's m.e. years when she sang this?) The mood is supportive once more though, one lost soul comforting another, with a lovely last verse: 'When the world steals all hope from you, you wonder where your dreams have gone to, you're the one I still belong to, listen why I love you'.
Finally, 'Sally Don't You Cry' is a bit of an anti-climax, another song clearly meant to seem like a traditional folk song but that simply sounds repetitive and doesn't really go anywhere. 'The times are hard when you question why' sings Mark for what seems like the hundredth time on this album, while Isobel's counter vocals don't actually work that well here.
Still, a good half of this album - mainly the acoustic songs - works very well indeed and whilst 'Sunday At Devil Dirt' doesn't quite have the consistency of 'Broken Seas' it might actually have the greater highs as well as the lower troughs. The more folkish idiom, generally speaking, works well across this album and Lanegan always sounds better when there's less to distract you from his voice anyway, making it a shame that the duo revert to the more electric and definitely eclectic sound of 'Hawk' next. That album, like this one, is an album of peaks and troughs too but is perhaps minutely more consistent than this one. Still, even if 'Devil Dirt' is the weakest of Mark and Isobel's trio it's still a riveting listen, full of remarkable performances on songs of doom and disaster and the human condition that seems a mile away from the first Gentle Waves album. Isobel should feel very proud.

"Introducing...Belle and Sebastian" (EP)
(Jeepster,  May 27th 2008)
The Boy With The Arab Strap/Expectations/Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying/Women's Realm/Jonathan David
"Hey, you're being used! Write a song, I'll sing along..."
To date, Belle and Sebastian have never released a best-of. Good for them: there are so many gems in their back catalogue that I wouldn't know where to start. All I can tell you is that this CD EP - thrown together in a hurry by Jeepster when they were in a bit of financial trouble - isn't really any fan's idea of a 'best of'. There's one song apiece from each of the first four albums, plus the 'Jonathan David' single, seemingly plucked at random: there's no 'State I Am In' 'Mary Jo'  'Dog On Wheels' 'Lazy Line Painter Jane' 'The Boy Done Wrong Again' 'Dylan In The Movies' 'Fox In The Snow'  'The Stars Of Track And Field' 'Me and the Major' 'Wandering Alone' 'Legal Man'... (not necessarily the best Belle and Sebastian, you understand, but popular or high-selling songs that the general public might be more likely to know). The EP doesn't even contain these said songs in the proper order. As for the cover, only Stevie is shown and to be honest there are better pictures around (it would have been more 'traditional' to not have the band there anyway...)

"The BBC Sessions"
(Jeepster,  November 18th 2008)
The State I Am In (July 1996)/Like Dylan In The Movies (July 1996)/Judy And The Dream Of Horses (July 1996)/The Stars of Track and Field (July 1996)/I Could Be Dreaming (December 1996)/Seymour Stein (July 1997)/Lazy Line Painter Jane (July 1997)/Sleep The Clock Around (July 1997)/Slow Graffiti (July 1997)/Wrong Love aka The Wrong Girl (July 1997)/Shoot The Sexual Athlete (May 2001)/The Magic Of A Kind Word (May 2001)/Nothing In The Silence (May 2001)/(My Girl's Got) Miraculous Technique (May 2001)
(The deluxe edition of the album included a 'bonus' disc 'Live In Belfast'; to read our thoughts on that please see the entry under '2001' in this book!)
"Hey! Cut me loose! Now I'm feeling fine!"
Review #1, to be sung with gusto: I was surprised, I was happy for a day in 2008. I was puzzled by a dream that Belle and Sebastian's BBC radio sessions were coming out - I didn't even know they'd done that many and I couldn't wait. But the recordings were made in a rush to save a radio from transmitting silence, so they weren't exactly loved. Although I was touched, I was moved that they had removed the crutches from my musical friends. But I was not impressed, they didn't sound as good as the records I had to confess. But I still got myself to HMV to see if they had it - although there was a pregnant pause before I said 'ok'. Now I'm feeling dangerous; reviewing BBC re-recordings of classics only ever designed to be heard once is sad. They gave themselves to sin and gave themselves to providence and still I kept going back again - oh the state these sessions were in! But I gave in to sin and kept coming back, oh yeah...
Review #2, to be spoken with a tinge of sadness: Not many bands adapt to radio that well - a kind of live performance with the concert removed so that a band's many mistakes and problems are laid bare for the world to see. Part of the huge fuss behind the 'Beatles at the Beeb' box set in 1993 was that the fab four somehow managed to sound as good playing live without overdubs for a group of bored middle-aged engineers as they did on their early records. Unfortunately that set the bar very high for every act that's followed - and if even bands as great live as The Kinks, The Who and The Hollies have struggled by comparison, a band as notoriously unrehearsed and scrappy as Belle and Sebastian have no chance. If you could somehow forget that the studio records existed or were unlucky enough never to have heard of Belle and Sebastian at all then, yes, I can see why these ok recordings of some truly fabulous material might make you sit up and listen. But a real test of these BBC compilations is to see if any of the alternative arrangements improve on any of the songs or whether any of the rawer edges make a particular song more enjoyable.
I can't honestly say any of the 10 re-recordings here do, with the only one that's particularly different ('Lazy Jane' as it's titled here, an attempt to re-record 'Lazy Line Painter Jane' without Monica Queen') is hopeless: Stuart and Stevie take on all the vocals, slow the tempo to a crawl and someone (Chris? Isobel?) taps an irritating glockenspiel part over the top. It's as if one of the greatest multi-layered kitchen sink dramas of all time has just been re-cast...as a children's cartoon (and not a good one like Dogtanion or Mysterious Cities of Gold, either, but an American one stapled together from doodles). Worse still is a punkish attempt to re-cut 'I Could Be Dreaming' as an early 80s Smiths song: I always thought a song that clever and poignant could survive anything. I was wrong. 'Seymour Stein', here even slower than on 'Arab Strap', sounds drunk. While an awkward 'Judy And The Dream Of Horses' made me reach for the bottle - and I don't drink (or didn't till hearing that version). A jumpy 'Sleep The Clock Around', meanwhile, might have been better if everybody had hit the bottle, being played way too fast (although the extended jam session ending is surprisingly good, until they fade it). The closest any song here comes to 'improving' is a sad and slow 'Slow Graffiti' and even that is close-enough to the original for most fans' ears. What's odd is that, despite the band's reputation as 'enthusiastic bumblers' live, it shouldn't be like this: the ten-track 'Tigermilk' was recorded in three fantastic days; the 14 poor performances here took place over five. What's more there's a great mini-concert made for French television in 1998 (see our 'unreleased tracks' section) that while a little rough in places is exciting and fun. Were the surroundings at the BBC really that scary, every time?
If the re-recordings don't work, then, how about the compilations' big talking point: four new songs, unheard on album and transmitted live only once for a John Peel show on June 24th 2001. Well, we've dealt with them in more detail in our 'non-album songs' section coming up but none of these are exactly essential either: 'Shoot The Sexual Athletes' is a curiously unmelodic song about roadies that's too sarcastic to sound like a genuine tribute; Isobel's 'The Magic Of A Kind Word' is the best of a bad bunch with a sad opening and a fun funky chorus but even this sounds like a spoof Belle and Sebastian song made up of parts people might expect to hear; 'Nothing In The Silence' has Isobel and Sarah singing a typically slow and sad song, but she's written better sad and slow songs; finally, '(My Girl's Got) Miraculous Technique' is a curiously low-fi recording of a Stuart Murdoch song that could have been something special but here sounds unfinished and unremarkable. All four songs are bonuses for fans, true, and it's better that they should find release somewhere than be doomed to rust away in a vault somewhere, but by Belle and Sebastian's high standards this isn't a gift for fans, just a bit of recycling.
Thank goodness, then, for the album packaging. There are lyrics for everything - even the otherwise unreleased songs. There are details about when each of these songs were broadcast (five in 1996, four in 1997, one in 1998 and four in 2001, so this is largely prime vintage B and S, although sadly there's no room for a reportedly superior 1996 session featuring 'We Rule The School' 'Seeing Other People' and 'This Is Just A Modern Rock Song' and a second John Peel session in 2002 I know was superior to this one because I actually heard it). There are unpublished photos: lots of lovely relevant photos of the band at work in a clearly alien environment including Stevie waiting on the steps to the audio-booth waiting for playback and Stuart Murdoch pretending to be asleep on the floor. Isobel gets only her second appearance on the front of a B and S project (and unlike 'Legal Man' she's on her own), curled up in a child's paddling pool (to get the  right 'echo', you see). Many fans were surprised at this - after all, Isobel had left the band a full six years earlier - but actually it makes sense; Isobel always had much more to do with the band live than on the records anyway and gets a nice lot to do here, with two lead vocals to her name and lots of cello parts and harmony vocals. The other stars are Stevie, whose reverb-filled guitar comes to the rescue of many a lacklustre performance with a storming solo or a sympathetic vocal and Mick Cooke, whose unflappable trumpet parts are the one element that sounds as tight and professional as on the records. Perhaps, then, the best thing about the BBC set is that - in the absence of all but two live albums, neither of them straightforward re-creations of a full B and S gig (the first of these released in a 'deluxe' re-issue of this BBC set) - it proves once and for all that Belle and Sebastian are a band, not just a few friends surrounding Stuart Murdoch.
In short, buy this set if you're a completist. Buy it if you really really have to hear what those four 'missing' songs sound like. Buy it if you've played each Belle and Sebastian so many times over that any alternate version of the songs, however bad, would still be of interest. Buy it if you want to hear what on earth 'Lazy Line Painter Jane' could sound like without Monica Queen to sing on it. Buy it if you want to hear how terrible even one of the world's greatest bands can sound like on a bad night (or nights). Buy it if you like pictures of Isobel Campbell sitting in paddling pools. But don't buy it if you're a casual fan after a 'highlights' set or someone who doesn't already own at least the first four band albums and three EPs. Belle and Sebastian really do sound better in the studio than they do on stage, by and large, and here is some very unwelcome proof. All that said, I do keep coming back to this album again and again, oh yeah. I'm not quite sure why...



God Help The Girl:
1) "Come Monday Night"
(Single, Rough Trade, May 11th 2009)
Come Monday Night/Howard Jones Is My Mozart
2) "God Help The Girl"
(Album, Rough Trade, June 22nd 2009)
Act Of The Apostle/God Help The Girl/Pretty Eve In The Tub/A Unified Theory/Hiding 'Neath My Umbrella/Funny Little Frog/If You Could Speak/Musician Please Take Heed/Perfection As A Hipster/Come Monday Night/Music Room Window/I Just Want Your Jeans/I'll Have To Dance With Cassie/A Down and Dusky Blonde
3) "Funny Little Frog"
(Single, Rough Trade, July 31st 2009)
Funny Little Frog/Mary's Market
4) "Stills"
(EP, Rough Trade, November 3rd 2009)
I'm In Love With The City/He's A Loving Kind Of Boy/Stills/Baby's Just Waiting/The Psychiatrist Is In
5) "Baby, You're Blind"
(Single, Rough Trade, May 24th 2010)
Baby, You're Blind/A Down and Dusky Blonde
"God help the girl - she needs all the help she can get"
When Stuart Murdoch started to gather together his latest songs for what became the 'Life Pursuit' album he found he had a problem: all he could hear in his head was a group of female singers Motown style. Putting the songs to one side, he realised that they told a story (along with a couple of songs he wished he'd kept from 'Pursuit', re-recorded for this album) but it wasn't a story he could tell with the band: well, not in the lead roles anyway; he needed new singers, preferably female and preferably young to fit the 'characters' he'd unknowingly been writing for. Now, to some extent this is nothing new: the best songs on 'Tigermilk' and 'Sinister' have Murdoch as a kind of omnipotent narrator, sympathising with a string of mixed up, vulnerable-yet-strong teenage and early-twenty-something females going through a rough patch and trying to make their mark on the world. But ever since Isobel stopped being a muse and turned into a human being (circa 'Arab Strap') and ever since Stuart recovered from his illness and found himself back in a world he'd last seen in his teens, Murdoch has found it harder and harder to compose 'songs' for these sorts of characters. Every Belle and Sebastian album since the third one have, to some extent, been clever and increasingly desperate ways to get around this fact (ignoring the problem and getting the rest of the band to write - 'Storytelling'; revisiting old friends one last time - 'Dear Catastrophe Waitress' and recording songs about the break-up - parts of 'The Life Pursuit'), all of which worked well as one-offs but didn't really point the way towards the future.
Somehow, though, without really meaning to, he's hit on the solution: 'God Help The Girl' is an all 'new' project (give or take a couple of recycled songs), untainted by the part it plays in the Belle and Sebastian love story, even though all of the 2009 line-up of Belle and Sebastian play throughout (and play very well, with Chris on keyboards and Stevie on guitar especially sounding like they're loving every minute of the new challenge). Suddenly it's as if we've gone back in time 15 years: Murdoch is now back in his element, shedding the need to be 'honest' that he's pursued over the past few albums rounding off the 'Belle and Sebastian' love story and merely trying to 'connect' with the audience he reached out to in 1995: confused, emotional, brittle yet feisty girls who have the weight out of the world on their shoulders. Many of the lyrics on 'God Help The Girl' are the best Stuart has written in years: poignant, troubled and poetic, songs that once again read just as well as poems in miniature as lyrics designed to accompany songs. Suddenly 'White Collar Boy' and the like seem like a bad dream.
Murdoch occasionally sings, in his familiar role as kind of 'overseer', but the majority of the album is sung by two 'new' singers 'discovered' for the project and playing two similar but separate characters: Catherine Ireton and Anna Miles. Stuart held a kind of Scottish run-down equivalent of 'X factor' to find his singers, but his lead role actually came closer to home. Ireton, once the vocalist with Irish band Elephant, had first met Murdoch in 2005 through a mutual friend of that band's guitarist Michael McCarthy and had initially wanted her as a sort-of 'second singer' for the band alongside Sarah (although the closest she got was appearing on the sleeve for the 'White Collar Boy' single). Murdoch has reportedly been kicking himself ever since for not 'connecting' his friend with the voice in his head sooner. Anna came through the auditions a more traditional way, along with 'Funny Little Frog' vocalists Brittany Stallings and Dina Bankole who were among 400 Scottish fans who responded to a similar competition advertised in a local Glasgow magazine.
The story back-drop to the songs takes us right back to where we came in in this book and sounds remarkably close to the real lives of both Stuart and Isobel. Ireton plays the main role of 'Eve', a struggling student who drops out of college gets a job she hates and dreams about becoming a singer-songwriter. She's also on the run from a psychiatrist board who want to keep her away from her 'life' and friends which she resents because she doesn't want to 'miss out' on life's experiences, however bad (something Murdoch has admitted at the film premiere in 2014 was very much based on his time spent suffering from m.e. 'but a film about m.e. would be the most boring film in the world' with lots of shots of Eve sleeping and not much else). To quote from film producer Barry Mendel on the 'God Help The Girl' website: 'It's a simple story about the brief moment after you've realised what you want to do with your life, before your dream settles into becoming your job, when you're filled with enthusiasm, meeting like-minded friends and the possibilities are endless'. Given the plotline of suffering and dead-ends, the music is remarkably upbeat (even more so than the early B and S albums, with hope 'around the corner' rather than some point in the future), though there's still plenty of room for Murdoch's wry turns of phrase (the title track tries to set out the plot and Eve's loneliness but interrupts it with a 'please stop me there - I'm even boring myself'). Dare I say it, as a collection of songs this is Murdoch's strongest work since at least 2001, possibly 1998, with Murdoch going back to conjuring up characters and situations in a few tragi-comedy lines that manages to be both highly believable and highly quotable. Best of all, he sounds like he's having 'fun' again, after so many years of reflecting where the love story went 'wrong' and ironically - given that the band are hardly here and get only the smallest of credits on the packaging - it might just have given Belle and Sebastian a new lease of life.
All the vocalists are strong and powerful, noticeably different to Isobel's traditionally light vocals, which is great news for the music business as a whole (all have strong futures) but rather makes a mockery of the more vulnerable lyrics of Murdoch's songs: the tough-ness we're used to hearing is there, but not always the layers of hurt and vulnerability we're used to hearing. I understand why it's there, but a gentler voice that can still resort to toughness might be better (the 1964-model Lulu would have been perfect - she even shares a Glaswegian accent!) The backing, while understandably and impressively removed from the average B and S sound, also doesn't have the same distinctive appeal across a whole album and lacks the shades of all of Murdoch's other projects to date. Despite everything we'd been hearing in the press about 'Motown' and 'girl bands' it's simply a tougher, grittier update of the usual B and S sound, like most of 'The Life Pursuit' had been but without the sudden 'surprises' (that goes double for the two songs we'd already heard on that album: 'Act Of The Apostle' and 'Funny Little Frog', which sound menacing here rather than cute as before). I for one would also have preferred to have heard B and S themselves sing this album, perhaps with Sarah taking on more of a role and with allowances made for Stuart finding his inner teenage girl: despite the new settings and new characters it's not entirely unimaginable to hear Murdoch sing these songs (especially project highlight 'Stills', which is the lovely poignant closing ballad 'If You're Feeling Sinister' was missing).
To some extent, though, that doesn't matter. 'God Help The Girl' isn't an album to hear from beginning to end in one sitting: that might be one of the reasons the music for it has been spread across so many sittings. Instead this is an album to savour, to experience at interludes; to come up on 'shuffle' every so often and take you by surprise. With such a loose story-line (at the moment anyway - at the time of writing the film still isn't out) 'God Help The Girl' feels less like a musical you have to listen to in order and more like a compilation of songs on a theme: the kind of thing B and S had done on their 'Late Night Tales' sets. To date there have been six variants of the project: three singles, an album, an EP and most recently of all a film (which, if it ever comes out after five years in the works, we hope to review separately in this book somewhere) The music though - sometimes unique to each release, sometimes released alongside the album - will be reviewed here in the order it came out, so please forgive us if we have to shuffle around the list we came up with above:
'Come Monday Night' was the first single taken from the album and despite appearing somewhere in the middle sounds like an 'overture' for the project, the two characters' voices circling round each other in wordless harmony. This is a song about escaping 'the looming grey of ordinariness' that hits us all on Monday night, with so much of the week still left to go and a disappointing weekend still playing on our minds. A simple song with a flowing melody is really helped by an excellent string arrangement and a new sound for B and S: an accordion!
The B-side, not included on the LP, is the wittily titled 'Howard Jones Is My Mozart'. The track is a monologue (Stuart David would be proud!) and seems to be placed in the 'plot' where Eve is released into the wide world from her psychiatric ward, 'a blank slate': 'In the past I expected the worst to happen, perhaps I still think the worst will happen, but what if it doesn't happen? What if I'm free?' Unsurprisingly music is her route to salvation: Eve has a CD one of her nurses did for her and she plays it, 'like a starving person tasting food for the first time'. She passes over Bill Withers and Jackson Browne though in favour of Howard Jones whose voice is like 'buttered toast' (don't tell him I said that!) This song really should have made the album as it tells is more about Eve in a song than the  whole of the album did and features some of Murdoch's cleverest character writing yet! Kim Moore 'is' Eve just for this one song and while she never actually sings she 'gets' the part very well indeed.
'Act Of The Apostle' is the song we first heard on 'The Life Pursuit', although only the first not second instalment of the track is here. Murdoch has re-arranged the song from straight pop into bluesy jazz which doesn't always work and Ireton doesn't quire have Murdoch's likeability as the religious studies pupil with deeper things on her mind. The song is a good one though and still my favourite from the 'Pursuit' album, even if this slower version doesn't have quite the same pathos.
'God Help The Girl' itself is a bright and cheery song that comes the closest to Murdoch's original idea of a 'girl band': it's the sort of thing the Shirelles would have done well in the 1960s. Eve is in adamant that she's not 'looking for a boyfriend' but in truth she's 'born to be contrary' and contradicts herself happily throughout the song ('If he gave me a sign...I'd think about it for a week I'd build it up - and then I'd turn it down!') Note all the references to sleeping: was this draft of Eve still meant to have m.e. like Stuart did?
'Pretty Eve In The Tub' features Murdoch singing a jolly little ditty that could have come straight out of the inter-war period and finds the singer accompanied only by a very 'proper' string quartet. The effect is delightful, Murdoch playing the role of her partner (although at times he's more like her parent), half-exasperated, half-loving of his awkward loved one, who 'came onto the scene like an energetic beam' but now lies comatose, with a face 'crumpled and creased from the way that you sleep'. The melody is one of Murdoch's best and the unusual backing works surprisingly well.
'A Unified Theory' is a moody jazz instrumental dominated by Bobby's upright bass, Stevie's guitar and Richard's busy drums. The piece shows off a new side to Belle and Sebastian but is too slight really to get a hold of and sounds out of place here 9what's happening in the plot? Has Eve gone to a jazz club?!If so she'll be back in the psychiatric ward in no time...
'Hiding 'Neath My Umbrella' has Stuart and Catherine trading lines over a moody piano riff that sounds remarkably like one of Cat Stevens'. The lyrics are just so B and S even if they're telling a different story, with Murdoch's male lead 'hiding' behind his ordinariness ('Don't commit to love and don't commit a crime') and Eve daydreaming about 'passionate thrills that are a waste of your time'. The pair of characters bump into each other and decide to give love a go, putting down their umbrellas with the feel that 'the weather may be changing'. A sweet song that's the one song here that does sound as if it belongs in a musical.
The 'God Help The Girl' version of 'Funny Little Frog' is more contemporary than Belle and Sebastian's version and lacks the swing and lovable vulnerability of Murdoch's version. The strings are a neat touch though and Brittany Stallings does a good job on a song that must have been hard to pull off, leaping from desperation to gentle put-down from verse to verse. I could have done without the twee instrumental passage though, which sounds like it belongs on a Michael Jackson album.
'If You Could Speak' is one of the better songs on the album, sung simply by Ireton to a strummed acoustic guitar. Murdoch's back to writing about dogs again on a song that must surely have a touch of Isobel in the character of Eve here: she's leapt out of bed, shoeless, to walk round the park and 'look for adventure' (see the B and S DVD 'For Fans Only', where she does just that, plus shoes it has to be said), to find her only companion of the day is a friendly dog. However she ends the day still adventure-less, with 'no breakfast, no kindness, no games'.
'Musician Please Take Heed'  might well be the best song here though, taking the refrain of the title track but slowing it down and adding the tension. Eve's 'temporary' friends are all out enjoying themselves when she gets out of hospital, leaving her with a soundtrack she picked with 'immaculate care' but no holiday (by now Eve's mental state is inexplicably connected to the music she plays and she sighs 'such a lot rests upon it, my life upon a song'. Let's hope she doesn't play Looper's 'The Snare' anytime soon or she'll be back in hospital again sharpish...) Spurned, she knows she should be studying but decides to write a letter instead: a long rambling letter where 'a gift of improvising removes me from revising'. By the end, exhausted, she 'does what she must' to get through another lonely night: she buys a leotard and goes to the gym, talks about taking some hallucinogenics but ultimately ends up asleep in front of the TV watching a repeat of an old 'Minder' episode. Such is life.
'Perfection As A Hipster' is a really curious song. Murdoch's writi9ng in the third persona gain, describing how the pair of lovers in the story get together, but he gives the song to Divine Comedy singer Neil Hannon to sing instead of himself. Adding yet another voice to proceedings this late on is an odd move and Hannon's operatic style doesn't really fit (why couldn't Stevie sing this part?!), while Murdoch has written better songs about two shy and insecure people meeting each other. Note yet more references to 'sleeping'.
'Come Monday Night' would be here on the LP but we've dealt with that so next up is another instrumental, 'Music Room Window'. Goodness knows how this links up to the story: a long-held string note blossoms into a lovely mournful orchestral eulogy that lasts barely a minute but is still one of the best things on the album. This piece really gives Murdoch a chance to show his strong capacity for chords and keys that tug at the emotions, although this badly needs to become a 'full' song.
Asya (vocalist with the band Smooth) sings lead now on the track 'I Just Want Your Jeans' and might well be the best of the singers on this album (Murdoch aside). Having just moved to a new area the singer hated it at first but has now come to embrace her anonymity and 'freedom'. 'My room faces North but the sun's is the South' is one of Murdoch's cleverest used of one of his favourite metaphors, summing up someone at odds with the world in the opening couplet. Another of the album's better songs.
Catherine is back for 'I'll Have To Dance With Cassie', another song that wouldn't be out of place in the roaring twenties or thirties for the first half. Eve is meeting boys at a party but is reading too much into their behaviour offering her a drink and so on and her 'dream boy' never asks for a dance so she simply gets up on the dance floor with party girl Cassie. Murdoch's eye for detail is rarely better but this song lacks the strong melodic hooks of most of the album.
'A Down and Dusky Blonde' is the most B and S sounding track here, complete with 'reverb' guitar from Stevie and a slow and sad melody that sounds as if it's crying buckets of tears. Eve has turned to her love once again but isn't quite herself: she curses him for looking his age before asking 'please make allowances for me'. Caught up with art and books and everything the human mind can be, Eve has neglected herself and is visited by a doctor who warns her 'man cannot live by word alone'. Confined to her room (on a hospital ward?) time passes by differently, 'like trick photography', with something else in charge of Eve's body 'although I kept my soul' and Eve's world of endless possibilities slowly shrinking until she can only think about the room she's confided in (making this the single most m.e. based song Murdoch has written since 1995). The saddest song on the record finally gives Catherine a song of depth and emotion to get her teeth into and is easily her best vocal on the album, although all the vocalists here get one line or another, as if all five characters visited across the record and hoping for utopia are now here: trapped in a room without any knowledge of how to escape.
B-side 'Mary's Market' and features Murdoch on lead again on a song that seems to follow on directly from the last song. Eve is still in hospital, listing everything she wants and misses (the feel of the wind in June, a walk down to the harbour, to be able to play the guitar, a 'saintly cellmate'). A friend comes round, plays 'an 80s box set I hadn't heard', cooks a dinner 'I never ate' and then leaves, 'making a still life out of nothing'. Another song surely written from Stuart's experiences with m.e. and living life separately to those around him, the song ends poignantly 'I want a song that kills me' - in both the sense of achieving something and from not having to do this sort of thing anymore. There's less of a tune here than usual but a very clever use of playing cat-and-mouse with the tension in the song. The track easily deserved to make the album.
'I'm In Love With The City' is a finger-snapping 'West Wide Story' style song about a love affair Eve knows will never work - because he's already got a 'lifelong partner' and it isn't her. A surprisingly slinky and sultry backing (with some excellent Mick Cooke horn parts) is the highlight of a song that tries to have it both ways - Eve decides she 'loves' him too much to break up two people who are happy, before ominously deciding she's only 'got a cat's chance in hell - I'd better take it!' The track was included on the 'Stills' EP.
'He's A Loving Kind Of Boy' is clearly a demo, with Murdoch singing lead even though he's obviously playing Eve and debating whether to take up with her lover or not. Basically he's sweet, 'knocking a chop off his shoulder' every day but not tough enough: he 'goes to church every day' and will try and drown himself in the bath if he thinks he's done her 'wrong'. The backing of swirling strings and mariachi horns is again unusual and not altogether successful. Another track from the 'Stills' EP.
So far the EP hasn't been up to the album, but the title track 'Stills' puts that right with perhaps the most exquisite single song of the project so far. Murdoch's typically mournful yet beautiful melody is accompanied by a gentle lyric that finds Eve bidding a mournful goodbye to her lover from a distance ('I've been banned' she sings, although whether that's true or only in her head is unknown for now - she compares being unable to say his name to 'a place in Russia in the 70s'). 'I'm writing a song and getting a lot of work done' she sings, before admitting she's still 'smoking two packs a day' and not looking after herself. You wonder whether Murdoch wrote this tender love-song-with-a-twist after a chance meeting with Isobel (whose paths often crossed with B and S in this period, especially at one of the band-curated festivals, where they often sent invites to Isobel) - once again it sounds very 'real' this song and is better yet than band song 'Read The Blessed Pages' from a year later. Alex Klobouk takes the lead on this one and is another excellent find, hitting the notes of vulnerable toughness spot on - she even sounds a little like Isobel at times.
'Baby's Just Waiting' is another EP track with Celia Garcia on lead vocal this time and returns to the 50s style of some of the album, complete with Richard Colburn playing his drum kit with 'brushes'. Another song of waiting for something to happen which never comes, this song recalls how suffering '20 years of education' has resulted in '20 years of incarceration and 20 of elucidation'. By now Eve is so out of touch with modern culture she feels even more isolated and out of touch - although her lifestyle of watching I Love Lucy re-runs and dressing from the 1950s sounds quite normal to me.
Final EP track 'The Psychiatrist Is In' is even more unusual: a bossa nova percussion-and-guitar instrumental, this is clearly more 'mood music' from the film (given the title presumably near the beginning when people first start to suspect Eve is having problems). Fun but inconsequential, this would have been a nice song with lyrics attached and makes for an unusual close to this section.
We'll be picking up the 'God Help The Girl' story when the film comes out in 2014: till then, Murdoch's project is a crucial part of the Belle and Sebastian story, far from perfect and full of filler but actually a more credible cornerstone of the B and S story than either of the two band albums around it. While flawed, you can see why the project got so under its creator's skin (to the point where it's become five years' work and counting) and the central plot about becoming cut off from a life that once promised so much is a logical conclusion for a writer whose been dabbling with the subject ever since 'It Could Have Been A brilliant Career'. The themes of isolation, desperation and hope really do bring out the best in Murdoch and the return to his own past via the characters in the story enable him to tell us things that are clearly highly personal and deeply moving. Like many a B and S album, though, the distractions and cameos take away too much from the central story and there's arguably a third too much material here, spread across the various releases. Still, at its best 'God Help The Girl' is moving, courageous and extremely promising in terms of writing, if not always performance. Let's hope that, even with the film to come, this isn't the last we hear of this project...
Non-Album Recordings: Stuart Murdoch (2009):
A) That isn't quite the end of Stuart Murdoch's spin-off entries in this book, however. The year 2009 also saw him release a solo recording of the otherwise unreleased song 'Another Saturday' for various artists 'AIDS' charity album 'Dark Was The Night' (actually the 20th album released to raise money and awareness for Aids sufferers as part of the long-running 'Red Hot Aids Benefit Series'. The track is a lovely folky song that's almost a sea shanty, with a melody taken almost verbatim from old folk song 'Wild Mountain Thyme' (the one the Byrds sing on their '5D' album). The mood is warm and optimistic, quite unlike anything else in his canon, asking us to 'be good to the one that's near and bow down to those in wanting' , before telling us to 'look ahead with hope and cheer' because we wouldn't be given a load this heavy to carry if someone upstairs didn't think we'd be able to 'bear' it. A fascinating glimpse into Stuart as a peddler of Christian songs, it's nice to hear him doing something so different to his usual style and he sounds like quite a different person: confident, joyous and in his element. Belle and Sebastian albums would benefit from more songs like this one. Find it on: Various Artists album 'Dark Was The Night' (2009)


Isobel Campbell: "Hawk"
(V2 Records,  August 24th 2010)
We Die and See Beauty Reign/You Won't Let Me Down Again/Snake Song/Come Undone/No Place To Fall/Get Behind Me/Time Of The Season/Hawk/Sunrise/To Hell and Back Again/Cool Water/Eyes Of Green/Lately
Deluxe Edition Bonus Track: Won't Be Sorry
"Both eyes on the road ahead, don't want to look behind"
A 'hawk' isn't exactly a bird of peace, but this third collaboration between Isobel and Mark does find Campbell finally achieving a state of 'peace'. While the album still contains, stings, barbs and the feeling of a 'Western' in places, it's the point at the end of the film where the cowboy is looking at all the dead bodies strewn back across his path and vowing 'never again' rather than looking for revenge. On the negative side, this means there's a touch less emotion and autobiography in the lyrics this time, with the sudden switches of pace and pathos that are becoming the duo's stock in trade drastically reduced this time around. On the plus side, Mark sounds much more comfortable with the idea and is actually a better vocalist now that he's conveying weary resignation rather than torture, with his voice an even better foil for Isobel's gentle harmonies this time around. Like 'Devil Dirt' this album was recorded more or less eyeball-to-eyeball and the pair have got to know each other pretty well by now - ironically they're beginning to sound like a telepathic married couple just at the point where Campbell is moving on from writing songs about married couples.
It's good, though, that the pair end their albums here, just at the point where Campbell is beginning to find subjects to sing about other than 'goodbye'. There are hardly references to bad exes (whether Stuart Murdoch or anyone else) and while there are still songs about heartbreak and bad luck, you sense that Campbell is having a happier time. While V2 clearly didn't think so, Campbell had managed quite an achievement with these three albums, going from a dismissed 'twee' indie pop singer who didn't do much expect inspire a few characters to a masterful writer, singer and arranger. While 'Hawk' is probably the least successful of the three 'Mark Lanegan' albums in pure artistic terms - being less intense and revealing - it is probably her most eclectic moment, really showing off just how far she's come and what she can do; they even have time to alter the settings a bit, branching out to embrace a wordless (and tuneless) punk jam on the title track, a country hoe-down(!) on 'Eyes of Green'  and a cover of Townes Van Zandt's acoustic rustic roots composition 'Snake Song'  (the eerie highlight of the album). The sky's the limit, in other words - so it's a shame that, at the time of writing, this partnership seems to be over, with the duo dropped by V2 records - poor justice for a record that actually managed to out-sell the first two, peaking at an impressive #29 (once again higher than either of the first two Belle and Sebastian albums). Our advice is if you're interested in the Belle and Sebastian story (and hopefully you are, or you'll have found the last 200-odd pages rather boring) then start with 'A Swansong For You' and 'Ballad Of The Broken Seas'. If you're interested purely in Campbell and Lanegan, though, 'Hawk' offers a wider range and more of a showcase as to what the pair can do.
'We Die And See Beauty Reign' is a lovely song co-written by Isobel and guitarist Jim McCulloch, which doesn't so much flow as 'throb', held together with pulsating synthesiser notes that do a good job at signifying a journey into the afterlife. Most singers would end with this song, not start with it, but it makes for a striking opening number, with perhaps one final 'goodbye' aimed at Murdoch's direction ('We fucked it up, forced the pace, got swept along, forged our fate')
'You Won't Let Me Down Again' is an angry acoustic foot-stomper and might well be my favourite track on the album. Mark's lead vocal veers on the demented while Isobel occasionally sings against and sometimes with him on an effective song about trust and betrayal that interestingly enough given what happens has Lanegan screaming 'strength is in the solitude I tried to obtain'.
'Snake Song' is the album's other gem: a typically Van Zandt tale of being so slippery no one can put a label on the crooked narrator ('Ain't no mercy in my smiling, only fangs and sweet beguiling'). Jim McCulloch gets to show off more of his fine guitar skills on the best 'Cowboy' sound Isobel has created yet.
'Come Undone' , however, sounds like nothing less than one of those modern TV adverts: there's sweeping strings, a plunked piano and emotion being poured out in  a very laidback, emotionless way. The narrator's only consolation after a relationship goes wrong is that, on their deathbed, 'everyone will see that I loved you the best' (eh? What's going to be revealed when the narrator dies, then?) To be honest Mark sounds more at home than ever on this track, although Isobel doesn't - which is odd seeing as she wrote it.
'No Place To Fall' is a nice acoustic interlude that - shock horror - features Lanegan singing high instead of his usual gravelly tones. It's a little uncomfortable, actually, even if it suits a song that for once features a happy Campbell pledging devotion to someone new: 'If we help each other grow, when the light of day smiles down our way, we can't be wrong'. That might be because it's another cover of a Van Zandt song rather than one of Isobel's own.
'Get Behind Me' is a storming 50s-style retro rocker that suggests the pair have been listening to a little too much White Stripes (i.e. 'Get Behind Me, Satan'), which sounds a great idea for the opening few seconds but sounds like a bad idea after five minutes of the same repetitive whine. This is another song that asks for and offers support instead of moaning about not having it as in the past.
'Time Of The Season' is another experiment in aural loveliness set on a Christmas Eve when the narrator's companion is a hissing cat. Could that be a Murdoch reference in the lyrics? ('You know I've been with dirty dogs (on wheels?) and kissed some frogs' (funny little ones?) - all that's missing is the line 'snogged a fox' and we'd have the set) However most of the lyrics seem to date further back than that, to a rubbish Christmas temp job where two friends met, fell in love and never reconnected, sound-tracked by 'that Christmas song by Boney M'. An unusual idea this, a 'story' rather than emotion fuelled song, and only a slight sense of lifelessness in the backing stops this song being more of a success.
'Hawk' itself is an awful idea though and the single worst thing on any Isobel Campbell record - neither Mark nor Isobel appear on what's really just an excuse for the studio musicians to go riot (although as Isobel gets the song credit it was probably based on her slight 12 bar blues riff). The effect is like hearing the Elephant's Memory jam from John and Yoko's 'Sometime In New York City' - an undisciplined cacophonous 1950s style jam with squealing saxophones that sounds as if it's never going to end.
'Sunrise' sounds more like it, with Isobel appearing more or less solo on a track that sounds musically and lyrically like a sequel to her B and S song fittingly titled 'Waiting For The Moon To Rise'. Isobel bemoans 'too much pain, too much pressure', but most of the song has her eyes newly opened to a bright world of possibilities. Could that be her sun-referencing ex Murdoch she's thinking of on the line 'I catch a falling star and wonder where you are?'
'To Hell and Back Again' features Isobel taking the lead again on a whispery sort of song that finds her world breaking apart, with the only comfort - uniquely - coming from religion (was Isobel more influenced by Stuart in this respect than we'd ever realised?) A lovely tune should have made for a great song but sadly there's no variety here; if ever a song needed a middle eight (or even a chorus), it's this one!
'Cool Water' has Mark taking the lead for a Johnny Cash style song about trying not to feel hard done by even when it's raining hard and 'you're out grace'. There are some great lyrics here, full of homespun wisdom: 'Take a cloth, wipe it off, see that? It's egg on your face'. This song might be simple but it's very effective and one of the better tracks on the album.
'Eyes Of Green' is a two minute Irish jig that's quite unlike anything else this pair have ever down. Actually it works rather well, with a nice fiddle part from Nina Violet, although the song needs to last a bit longer to truly satisfy.
The original album then ends with 'Lately', which finally finds the narrator happy and 'with direction under my feet', which comparing where we started two albums earlier is a breakthrough indeed. Sadly it also sounds rather artificial after all that angst and with guest vocalist Tisha Fredderick and Makeda Francisco's soulful tones sounding very out of place on an album all about quiet and space. Isobel doesn't appear either, which is a shame.
'Won't Be Sorry' - another acoustic  song added as a 'bonus' on the iTunes download of the album - acts as a more fitting farewell, with Mark angrily telling us that he's nothing to be sorry for, even though the lyrics go on to show how he murdered his yellow-haired lover 'by the banks of a river'. It's not the best song on the album but it would have fitted in well on 'Broken Seas' collection of folk tales and evil deeds and is as usual exquisitely performed.
Overall, then, 'Hawk' isn't quite top notch but it's good to hear Isobel and Mark trying to chop and change their trademarks and experiment a bit across this album. Not all of these experiments come off, but enough of them do to suggest a fourth album featuring this pair might be truly special. Unfortunately, however, the time seems to have passed, with Mark going back to his solo career (with 2012's all-original 'Blues Funeral' and 2013's covers album 'Imitations') and Isobel keeping unusually quiet for the moment...


Stevie Jackson: "(I Can't Get No) Stevie Jackson"
(Rough Trade,  'November' 2011)
Pure Of Heart/Just, Just So To The Point/Try Me/Richie Now/Dead Man's Fall/Bird's Eye View/Man Of God/Kurosowa/Where Do All The Good Girls Go?/Telephone Song/Press Send/Feel The Morning
"It's not as though I need someone..."
Stevie's first solo album - including the clever Rolling Stones referencing title - was being planned before he joined his first band The Moondials, never mind Belle and Sebastian and made good use of the large crop of songs he'd been busy building over the past few years and couldn't place on a band album. The title, in fact, dates back to his teenage years, although sadly he's not got round to using his childhood favourite 'Jackson Viking' yet (maybe next time...) Stevie Jackson is a likeable chap and so is this album, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of rock and roll even I can’t hope to match and this album features as large an array of ideas, styles and emotions as you’d expect, with notably more variety than the other B and S spin-off projects like Looper, Isobel and God Help The Girl. The best of the songs here are also better than anything that had been released under the band name since at least 2003, poignant, revealing and sweet.
Sweet is a word that might crop up a lot throughout this review. Stevie's narrator might try too hard to look cool, act tough and get down with the boys but as the best of this crop of songs have it his greatest weakness and greatest strength is that he's 'pure of heart'. This album can be pretty much equally be split in two between the 'experiments' that don't quite come off and the songs that 'sound' like Stevie: weedy, needy and vulnerable - yet very sweet. 'Pure Of Heart' is a great song about trying to be someone you're not and fooling no one, closely followed by the delightful 'Richie Now', a Kinks like song about a childhood friend whose changed immeasurably while you still feel the same (Stevie's awe of his friend's Beatles collection - 'He talked of 'Rubber Soul' and 'Wonderwall' - may well be the highlight of the entire set). 'Telephone Song' meanwhile is a wonderful song in 'I'm Not In Love' mode: the narrator tries hard to be cool and calm but his delight in a girl giving him her number is fooling no one, no matter what he says. In all, that's three superb songs that would give even the earliest and most perfect Stuart Murdoch songs a run for their money and a welcome addition to any fans' Belle and Sebastian collection. Had 'Write About Love' featured three of these songs instead of that album's lesser moments (Stevie's 'I'm Not Living In The Real World' among them) then I'd be talking about that record as a terrific return to form.
So, end of review, everyone happy, next review? Not quite. Filling a whole album on your own after decades with a band is a tall order (and one that even such big AAA figures as Roger Waters, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards struggled with). Faced with filling a whole album with similarly upbeat pop tunes and a record that took a few chances, Stevie bravely went for the latter approach. But the sad truth is that the 'weirder' material here (like the electronic 'Just, Just So To The Point' which makes even 'Electric Renaissance' sound normal or the spoof 10cc comedy email song 'Press Send') really doesn't come off. Hard as he tries, Stevie should have taken his own advice and stayed 'pure of heart', scribbled away another couple of songs and come up with the retro solo album of the decade. One interesting variation of this is that Stevie plays pretty little guitar throughout the album: instead the main sound of the album is piano, but not Murdoch's 'twinkling' piano licks but a more structured, chordal sound (the only other member of B and S to crop up regularly is Bobby Kildea, who plays guitar rather than bass). There is plenty the 'reverb' that Stevie has become famous for within and without the band and it works well, but it tends to be placed on top of everything here, rather than just the guitar, giving the majority of the song a '1960s' feel that works really well for an old-schooler like me (by contrast Looper tend to stick to the 1980s and  'God Help The Girl' is 1950s, while Isobel's work veers between the 1930s and the most contemporary of all the band). So, I can't get no or I can't get away fast enough? The truth is a little of both. Stevie might not have made a record as strong as the best of his parent band and might not have made a record that matches Isobel's strongest work away from the band, but he does prove what a great singer-songwriter he is away from Stuart Murdoch's shadow, how lucky the band are to have him and how good a second album made completely on the lines of this album's better songs and made entirely 'pure of heart' would be one day.
'Pure Of Heart'  is special indeed: a young Stevie shyly fancies a girl but all he has to offer her is the 'mother's pride' bread from his lunchbox. We then cover the years from 'boy to man, the awkward stance, guitar chords and also rans' As Stevie dreams of glory, tries to act like the rock star of his dreams and gets told basically 'why are you being so silly? You're too pure of heart to act 'bad'. A lovely country-rock-ish backing track, with some exceptional bass playing from Bill Wells and Stevie on pedal steel, makes for one of the loveliest songs Stevie has written yet and easily identifiable for all us musical nerds out there. Stevie says on his website that he was inspired to write it after a band discussion about different chords: Stevie's favourite is F Major (the key of this song), with all its poignancy and wistfulness, although the song only came together when he 'pretended to sing it like Elton John'.
'Just, Just  So To The Point' is less interesting somehow, a song written 'about' movie director John Huston (who directed The Maltese Falcon and Moulin Rouge) apparently. Not that you'd know it from the lyrics, although there is what seems to be a film set and someone called John .That just sounds like an excuse to talk in 'hip speak' to me (Your naysayers don't get your groovin'  as you're reaching for your elephant gun'), with the odd clever line ('Houston we don't have a problem, Tom Hanks, no thanks' 'Get yourself a backbone - you ain't no invertebrate!') Stevie sounds like he's having fun and this is the closest we've yet come to a B and S rap song - but after the warm promise of the opening track this just sounds clever rather than from the heart.
'Try Me' features Sarah on organ and more of the B and S sound, a sort of swampy rocker with heavy reverb (well, naturally) thought wouldn't have sounded out of place on The Stones'  'Exile On Main Street'. In fact Stevie's lyrics are pitched even earlier: 'I wish it was still 1964, I'm still stuck in '63, maybe next year...' , before moving off to talk about swans (as you do). The highlight is a blistering guitar solo from Bobby and a nicely demented vocal from Stevie.
'Richie Now' is a gorgeous song of childhood and growing up, basically re-telling Ray Davies' 'Do You Remember, Walter?' with a childhood friend who used to be so close but is now so far apart. I tell you, the mysterious 'Richie' (who also crops up on B and S B-side 'Mr Richard') sounds like my kind of a friend too: he owns every single Beatles song and with spends his lunch-times with Stevie 'playing guitars and dreaming of being stars' (at a time when the only one Stevie owns is the 'Twist and Shout EP from 1963'). The difference here, though, is that Stevie's childhood dreams came true and his friend's never did; so here, in tribute, is the title that Richie once chose for a record ('Richie Now') on an album titled after the idea a teenage Stevie came up with. Ahhh, sweet. The song is more than just in-jokes, though, and will bring a lump to the throat of anyone who 'never thought they'd grow old'.
'Dead Man's Fall' is a simple song about turning your life around and makes reference to a slightly less happy childhood friendship ('Remember the time that I fell? To you it meant nothing at all'). The mood is upbeat, though, complete with 'doo bah bah' backing vocals and lyrics that talk about 'turning round 180 degrees'.
'Bird's Eye View' is a sweet ballad for harpsichord and guitar commissioned for but never used by a re-development project in Dunfermlene. Inspired by the idea of taking a run-down patch of ground and turning it into luxury flats, Stevie pours his hearts into the lyric which is full of hope and vigour and life: 'the sun shines through the broken glass' 'lilac wallpaper hung with patience and care'. Of course, Stevie wrote the song before he saw it finished when all those wonderful ideas were thrown out in favour of doing the flats up 'cheap' - as Stevie admits on his site, 'shoddily made', if well loved by those who live in them. Stevie's friend Gray Thom gets the unique label credit on this song: 'bike', 'hitting' the wheels when the word 'bicycle' crops up on the lyric. Pretty.
'Man Of God' is a collaboration between Stevie and friend Ray Moller, a simple song about chatting up a girl at a party by looking cool (although, as Stevie's website puts it, in reality 'the girl would soon get bored and leave as we'd end up talking about Beatle B-sides or something'. The song is closer to Stuart's later songs, actually, with its pleas to God and Moses as a girl gives the narrator the closest he's ever felt to a 'religious experience'. There's something slightly askew about this track, though, which doesn't quite connect up and is one of the weaker on the album.
'Kurosawa' features Stevie doing his deeper 'Johnny Cash' voice and inspired by his love of Japanese films (Kurosawa directed 'Rushomo' and 'Seven Samurai' among many many others), while a multi-part Mick Cooke trumpet section plays. I'm pleased to say I 'guessed' that Stevie nicked the rhythm (or at least the cymbal part) from one of my favourite Stones songs 'High and Dry' ('Aftermath' 1966), but the overall feel is a little more modern than that.
'Where Did All The Good Girls Go?' is the oldest song Stevie's released yet: he started it when he was 17 (so circa 1986) before finishing it for this album: a gestation period of 25 years or so! The music is pure Kinks/Who 1965 riff-heavy rock, but the lyrics and instrumental touches are more French, with references to French stars who - luckily for the lyric - all rhyme with each other: 'Clemenceau' 'Victor Hugo' 'Juliette Greco' (what happened to Brigitte Bardot?) Stevie doesn't say it on his website but I'm willing to bet this song was inspired by a disappointing trip to Paris (perhaps on a B and S tour) where the 'city of love' was found wanting.
'The Telephone Song' is another highlight, an orchestral epic that on the one hand conveys Stevie's delight at finally getting a girl's telephone number and trying to act 'cool' ('It's not as if I need someone...') and other a tribute to music, his career giving him a direction and purpose he never had growing up (the best imagery in the song: being chased through the rain with his band members, 'like A hard Day's Night' - a true experience, apparently, although Belle and Sebastian weren't actually being chased, just acting hysterical'). Stevie then ends the song deciding not to call her - he doesn't want to disturb her doing something important, like 'playing her records, dreaming her wishes': it's the having her number in his pocket that's important.
'Press Send' is a modern version of the 'dear John' letter, Stevie's narrator accidentally pressing 'send' on an 'e-mail to a female' he didn't mean to send. He wants her to know he loves her, but is too afraid of rejection, while in a line that makes the whole of the last song look suspect, he won't call her up on the phone because 'talking's not my scene'. By the end he sends the e-mail anyway, but knows 'it will get me a whole lot of bother'. A chirpy 50s-style 10cc backing, with Chris Geddes now guesting on keyboards, is a little too quirky though.
The album ends with 'Feel The Morning', a 'hymn to being alive' that features drummer Richard turning up this time (making Stuart the only then-current member of B and S not to appear). Alas this song tries a little too hard to offer up romantic imagery in terms of moon and the stars etc and ends just when it gets going. It seems a rather odd way for this album to end, without the originality of most of the rest of the record.
Overall, though, I can't get enough of 'I Can't Get No'. While a few tracks miss the spot, the best of this album is on a par with any of the great Belle and Sebastian records and as a whole is actually better than the last couple of 'band' LPs. I always felt Stevie has been overshadowed during his time with the band and that there was a great LP in him if only he had the space to find it. While this isn't quite up to being a 'great' LP, I still feel I was right and that we deserve to see more of his songs on B and S records. I look forward greatly to hearing 'Viking Jackson'  sometime in the future!...


"Belle and Sebastian's Late Night Tales Volume II"
(Late Night Tales,  March 26th 2012)
Ominous Cloud (Broadcast)/Watch The Flowers Grow (The Wonder Who?)/A Time For Us (Joe Pass)/Yekermo Sew - A Man Of Experience and Wisdom (Muluta Astatke)/Tudo Que Voce Podia Ser (Milton Nascimento and Lo Borges)/Et Si Je T'aime (Marie Laforet)/Bird Of Space (Bonnie Dobson)/Soul Vibrations (Dorothy Ashby)/Tomorrow's People (McDonald and Giles)/ Quitters Raga (Gold Panda)/Chord Simple (Broadcast)/Savage Sea (The Pop Group)/Starless and Bible Black (The Stab Tracey Quartet)/Darlin' Be Home Soon (The Lovin' Spoonful)/Crash (Belle and Sebastian)/LSD Partie (Ronald Vincent)/Still Sound (Toro Y Moi)/Rude Bwoy Thug Life (Ce'cile)/Scottish Widows (Remember Remember)/Streets Of Derry (Trees)/Spinning Wheel (Blood Sweat and Tears)/Homosapien (Dub) (Peter Shelley)/Still Thinking Of You (Steve Parks)/On The Other Ocean (David Behrman)/Lost For Words Part Three (Paul Morley)
"Ride a painted pony and let the spinning wheel spin!"
Belle and Sebastian's second entry in the 'Late Night Tales' series (the label's 27th entry in total, coming out between compilations by MGMT and Tom Findlay of Groove Armada) is even more defiantly left-of-centre than the first. Good luck if you recognise more than three of the names listed above, which again contain an impressively eclectic mix of country and folk with an emphasis on Spanish salsas. It's nice to hear some more by the under-rated English rock group 'Trees' and Belle and Sebastian's natural taste allows them to pick what is easily the best Lovin' Spoonful song, way better than any of their more famous singles. However a lot of the rest is either unusual, unmusical or usually both. At least Belle and Sebastian's choice of exclusive cover is a lot better this time around, with the band choosing to re-invent 1980s moody Primitives single 'Crash' as a singalong single. Murdoch revels in the ability to sing nastily for once and - after his experience on 'God Help The Girl' made him re-live it - might be thinking about his m.e. days when he chose the song. Either way, the vocal is one of his best, somewhere between innocence and a good old cackle. Alas the CD packaging for this second volume is a bit of a let down though, with what best can be described as a 'psychedelic leaf', which isn't a patch on the green umbrella of volume one. Still, another handy compilation of songs that might otherwise have been lost - our advice is to keep the skip button handy though!


"The Third Eye Centre"
(Rough Trade,  August 26th 2013)
I'm A Cuckoo (Avalanches Remix)/Suicide Girl/Love On The March/Last Trip/Your Secrets/Your Cover's Blown (Miaoux Miaoux Remix)/I Took A Long Hard Look/Heaven In The Afternoon/Long Black Scarf/The Eighth Station Of The Cross Kebab House/I Didn't See It Coming (Richard X Remix)/(I Believe In) Travellin' Light/Stop Look and Listen/Passion Fruit/ Desperation Made A Fool Of Me/Blue Eyes Of A Millionaire/Mr Richard/Meat and Potatoes/The Life Pursuit
"If only we could see past the veneer we'd see another side of you"
While first EP and single compilation 'Push Barman To Heal Old Wounds' was more generous than it needed to be, this single disc set taking in the highlights of non-album songs dating from between 2003 and 2012 seems a little stingy by B and S standards. For a start, not everything that ought to be on this album is here (we've listed a lot of them already, but key tracks missing are the cover of 'Baby Jane' 'Whiskey In The Jar' and 'Crash'). And what is here isn't here in any real order but collected kind of randomly: for instance starting in 2003, jumping to 2010 and back again to 2003. We could mention, too, that the packaging is less 'complete' than last time: there's no attempt to give us every essay included on the original works, no reproductions of the artwork of each and every single and the front cover - a hideous monochrome shot of a Victorian looking dance troupe - is easily the worst on a B and S release to date. Add in the fact that, frankly, most of the best stuff from the 'Catastrophe' 'Pursuit' and 'Write About Love' eras ended up on the albums and the B sides only tended to be experiments and you have a lot of reasons to spurn this set.
Which would be a shame for anyone missing a few of the original singles. There aren't many highlights here by the band's high standards but those that are remain key parts of the band's catalogue, worth trawling through hell and high-water for, never mind be collected on a handy and fairly cut-price compilation. 'Your Secrets' is a winning final song in the 'old' B and S style, 'Suicide Girl' one of the band's better stabs at finding a more modern sound, 'Long Black Scarf' a memorable and cute Stevie Jackson song about love and nostalgia, 'Travelling Light' a sweet folk ballad and 'Stop, Look and Listen' a fun folk-rocker that more than deserved a place on an album proper. In truth the rest isn't all that good but, hey, most bands would kill for even one B-side this good at the peak of their career, never mind their comparative twilight years. Released with - by Belle and Sebastian standards - a lot of publicity and clearly viewed as a 'stop-gap' release to remind the public they still existed, the set deserved better than a UK chart high of #44 (four places lower than 'Barman' and the band's lowest 'non-Late Night Tales' chart placing since 'If You're Feeling Sinister' seventeen years earlier).





                                                                               
















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