I vividly remember the first time I heard Glasgow band Belle and Sebastian. I had been living in Bogota for over a year, and been pretty much steeped in Salsa and Manu Chao for most of that time, when a compilation CD came through the post from a fellow indie fanatic back in England. Most of the compilation washed over me (sorry Chris), but one track stood out a mile. From the first tentatively sung words to its intriguing title, Stars of Track and Field is a rare bird in every way. As a vocalist, Stuart Murdoch is totally lacking in artifice, and he sings with such earnest intent you are almost obliged to believe he knew the song’s protagonist intimately. The song builds gradually to reach a sumptuous crescendo, taking in a great trumpet solo on the way. Add humorously poetic lyrics and you know you are in the hands of a truly original talent.
A boy I never rated,
And now he’s throwing discus,
For Liverpool and Widnes.”
“You only did it,
So that you could wear,
Your terry underwear,
Feel the city,
Run past your body”
The song showed a wicked sense of humour and Morrisey’s sharp eye for a put down, but the musical accompaniment was a different beast to that of The Smiths. There was something almost deliberately weady and vulnerable about it, and this fragility made the band the antithesis of all things rock. The group inevitably divided opinion: unbearably twee to some and a breath of fresh air to others with their unusual instrumentation and unashamed tenderness.
The song titles on the album read more like a collection of short stories, and many of the songs would stand up as literature, peopled with interesting characters and dramatic vignettes. Dylan in the Movies rattles along on a infectiously simple bass line, and organ solos add ambience to one of the most seductive tracks on the album, and Murdoch again masterfully manages the dynamics of a deceptively simple song. Fox in the Snow confirms Murdoch’s willingness to move away from rock’s normal instrumentation, setting homely harmonies against mournful strings and piano. The song focuses on life’s outsiders, and wonders what secret forces drive their lives:
“Fox in the snow,
Where do you go
To find something you can eat?
Cos the word on the street
Is you are starving now”
The title track again highlights Murdoch’s eye for the outsider, no doubt in part due to his own difficult youth debilitated by chronic fatigue. Musically, the track sounds like Nick Drake’s Sound of a City Clock with a great Smiths bass line laid on top, and like The Boy with the Arab Strap on the follow up album, this is one of those tracks that just nails such a seductive groove that you never want it to end.
The lyrics sing of Hilary who is “into S and M and bible studies” and gently pokes fun at the church’s inability to reach lost souls, concluding
“If you’re feeling sinister
Go off and see a minister
Chances are you’ll probably feel better
If you stayed and played with yourself”
The song highlights the many layered appeal of the band: angelic singing and charming instrumentation hiding sting in the tail lyrics.
This is an album to refresh your palette, the perfect antidote to to so much modern anodyne indie rock. Like Morrissey before him, Murdoch is a real original, and this album is wonderfully realized portrait of adolescence, with all its romance, anxieties and embarrassments.