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Belle and Sebastian: 12 Great Songs and Stories

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Stuart Murdoch’s Glasgow band started off as a college project, with Murdoch turning in the first Belle and Sebastian record, 1996’s Tigermilk, as his finished assignment. While he found himself wrapped up in books, we eventually became wrapped up in his music.

It’s with that scholastic notion that we present to you as a group the following 12 great songs and the stories that lie within from Belle and Sebastian’s discography. These tracks aren’t ranked, but offered up in a chronological order to better see Murdoch’s evolution over the years.

Before you dive into this week’s B-sides compilation, The Third Eye Centre, let’s read through some classic B&S. Pay attention. Quiz follows.

–Justin Gerber
Senior Staff Writer

“Rhoda”

Album: Never released officially.

“Rhoda” predates Belle and Sebastian’s formation, where Stuart Murdoch was at one of the weakest points of his life. As recounted in Pitchfork’s documentary, If You’re Feeling Sinister, Murdoch was lost after graduating from University of Glasgow, making the beginning of his twenties stagnant and emotionally confused. “Rhoda” teases listeners with its happy-go-lucky nature through bright fingerpicking, sweet harmonies, and catchy hooks about being “really happy.” But the true spirit of the song revolves around the songwriter’s sexuality being the root of unhappiness. The verses are flush with beautiful romanticism, dreaming about his lovers’ freckles and the feeling of “goosebumps, fits, and malaria.” He then admits that he loves both men and women, but the only way that his partners can find satisfaction is medicinal drugs, leaving Murdoch hurt. The sadness driven through the track built a perfect foundation for Belle and Sebastian, making it one of the most important and addictive tracks in their catalog. –Sam Willett

Highlight: The acoustic strums of his female lover transitioning to the full-band rhythm to intoduce his masculine facination and the curiosity behind, “And on her arm there’s freckles and scars…Do you know what they are? Do you know where they came from?”

“Expectations”

Tigermilk

Album: Tigermilk (1996)

“Expectations” was the first thing I ever heard from Belle and Sebastian. My college dorm-mate — fresh from another all-nighter in his architecture studio — told me to hit up Napster one early morning to check out a song his lady-friend had just shared with him. A lifelong Stephen King fan, I was immediately taken by the tale of a quiet schoolgirl suffering outrageous indignities at the hands of her rabid classmates. One lyrical sequence stood out in particular: “The rumor is you never go with boys and you are tight/ So they jab you with a fork, you drop the tray and go berserk/ While you’re cleaning up the mess the teacher’s looking up your skirt.” Though not quite as vicious as Carrie, the words still resonated, leaching sympathy from my desensitized heart. “Expectations” understands that kids can be terribly cruel. But even when things are bleak, remember that somewhere out there there is someone who loves you. And you may find them. If not, you can always use your psychic powers to obliterate senior prom. –Dan Pfleegor

Highlight: “Expectations” predated the #ItGetsBetter viral campaign by almost two decades, but its optimistic show of support and surprising brightness prove once again that art communicates complex ideas even better than hashtags.

“The State I’m In”

Tigermilk

Album: Tigermilk (1996)

It’s an interesting phenomenon when the opening track off a group’s first — and arguably best — album is a career highlight. Such an accomplishment is usually reserved for the likes of one-hit wonders and live music events that collect global charity. But Belle and Sebastian broke that mold and paved a successful career of accolades and praise after introducing themselves with Murdoch’s bittersweet confessional penance. The band laid themselves bare-naked and sinful before those who would care to listen. These Scots proved they were not afraid to delve into controversial subjects like suicide, homosexuality, or “S&M and Bible Studies.” Ever sinister and coy, “The State I am In” is the title of a novella written by a priest with a photographic memory. Just imagine what he’s heard. –Dan Pfleegor

Highlight: Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I am supposed to point out the best part of this song, but I fear labeling any part as the highlight would detract from the masterpiece.

“She’s Losing It”

Tigermilk

Album: Tigermilk (1996)

Many Belle and Sebastian songs prance around the subject of sexuality. “She’s Losing It” is a humorous anecdote of a woman’s changing philosophy on lesbianism, commencing with her days on the playground and solidifying when “Lisa’s around.” After exiting an abusive relationship, protagonist Chelsea’s taste for men has gone quite sour, which gradually drips into her daily brew and everyday interactions with others. Murdoch attempts to help her out, but it’s evident that no man will shake her grouchy funk. Her fits of temperament cycle through scenes of using the innocent B&S frontman as a punching bag or yelling at her neighbors, almost making it feel like a corny sitcom montage with a genuine laugh track. “She’s Losing It” is short, sweet, and hilarious, especially because everyone knows someone like Chelsea. –Sam Willett

Highlight: ”When the first cup of coffee tastes like washing up, you know she’s losing it/ Yeah, she’s losing it.”

“Me and the Major”

feelingsinister Belle and Sebastian: 12 Great Songs and Stories

Album: If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996)

We all grow old (very profound, I know). On “Me and the Major”, the third track from If You’re Feeling Sinister, Murdoch explores the interactions between the protagonist and an older man (the major of the title), and the gaps that we find between the generations. There’s a real sadness here in between the rapid guitar-play and harmonica slinging. What initially appears to be a song about a youth unable to connect to a willing elder ends up a story about a man who “is swapping his tent for a shelter home/ He doesn’t have a family, he is living alone.” The youth is depressed at song’s end, wanting to drink away memories of the major as the snow falls. Despite the melancholy, you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone not dancing their ass off during a live performance at a B&S show. –Justin Gerber

Highlight: When the music drops back for Murdoch’s recollection: “And he remembers Roxy Music in ’72.” (rat-tat-tat)

“Like Dylan In the Movies”

feelingsinister Belle and Sebastian: 12 Great Songs and Stories

Album: If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996)

“Like Dylan in the Movies” serves as the band’s homemade recipe for pepper spray. While it’s fun to kiss boys and be out on the town, men lurk the park to find these vulnerable ladies on their “long walk home.” The song’s lyrics serve as advice to avoid being raped in New York City, and the clever Bob Dylan reference hints at the documentary Don’t Look Back, an insider’s look at Dylan’s fame and lifestyle. The legend’s carelessness amongst fans is molded here into a necessary determination for a woman’s safety. Murdoch’s lyrics reveal that he’s not afraid to talk about the hard stuff and has confidence in his advice, especially influenced by his undying love. If the lyrics are hard to digest, the dominant bass line and hip-swaying chorus will perk you up to take on the challenge. Here, Belle and Sebastian control your entire being, evoking new thoughts from your mind and dance moves from your feet.  –Sam Willett

Highlight: ”When the music stops….” [snare crack] and “Yeah, you’re worth the trouble and you’re worth the pain/ And you’re worth the worry, I would do the same.”

“Lazy Line Painter Jane”

lazyline Belle and Sebastian: 12 Great Songs and Stories

Album: Lazy Line Painter Jane EP (1997)

The title track from one of their three 1997 EPs is one of their nastiest. Murdoch’s oft-fey vocals disguise the darkness behind many of Belle and Sebastian’s greatest tunes, and “Lazy Line Painter Jane” is no exception. Who is this Jane, anyway? She’s definitely a young woman living in a small town, yearning for escape. The rest of her story isn’t so cut and dried. She may or may not be a prostitute, but definitely knows “a girl who’s tax-free/ On her back and making plenty cash,” while Jane herself may have contracted an STD (“dose of thrush”) and ended up pregnant. Plot aside, this is the grooviest B&S song to date, heightened by guest vocalist Monica Queen, who takes it to a frenzied level Isobel Campbell could never reach. That said, her escalating hysterics never go too far over the top. –Justin Gerber

Highlight: That organ throughout the song, but notably the final 80 seconds once the vocals drift away. Richard Colburn’s steady percussion is worth a round of applause, as well.

“The Rollercoaster Ride”

boywiththe Belle and Sebastian: 12 Great Songs and Stories

Album: The Boy With The Arab Strap (1998)

The final song on The Boy With The Arab Strap is often overlooked among the album’s more obvious jewels. It’s a gentle, meandering trip penned from inside Murdoch’s metaphorical window on the world. Propelled by unfussy acoustic guitar and layered with increasingly decorative piano, Murdoch’s soft musings are echoed by Isobel Campbell’s dreamy harmonies. The very uncertainty of Campbell’s pitch underlines the vulnerability and mental health of a troubled innocent at large in the world. Lyrically it can get quite oblique but musically the rollercoaster runs on cohesion, and is even indulgent enough to afford leisurely instrumental breaks and a deliciously long and restrained coda. –Tony Hardy

Highlight: This is a song that’s in no hurry to get to where it’s going. The slide guitar that weaves in and out at intervals is a masterstroke, begging you to stay for the ride.

“I Fought in a War”

Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant

Album: Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (2000)

“I Fought in a War” tells the timeless tale of young men heading out to fight the boys of another country while the girls stay home to manufacture weapons and wring anxious hands in wait of letters or bodybags. This tragic song opens the group’s fourth studio album, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, with an examination of humanity’s bellicose nature and the confusing, intercontinental journeys made in the name of killing for resources. Murdoch’s solo vocal intro and soft acoustic strum start a march of sound that eventually features horns and a string section. It’s a beautiful, sad song covering subject matter that’s driven people mad ever since mankind started pointing their hunting spears at one another. Check out Damien Rice’s cover version, which plays over the closing credits of 2005’s illuminating military-industrial complex documentary Why We Fight. –Dan Pfleegor

Highlight: Lyrics that ring as true for Thucydides’ account of warfare as they do for Joseph Heller’s: “I fought in a war/ And I didn’t know where it would end/ It stretched before me infinitely/ I couldn’t really think.”

“I’m A Cuckoo”

dearcatastrophe Belle and Sebastian: 12 Great Songs and Stories

Album: Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003)

Pure pop perfection. A lovelorn Murdoch longs for his lost love and is going crazy over his predicament. Not really crazy, of course. Just the crazy we all get when it’s over, or in this case, ending oh-so slowly: “Breaking off is misery/ I see a wilderness for you and me” and “I loved you/ You know I loved you/ It’s all over now.” Just rip off the Band-Aid, man! Does he miss her or just the feeling they once shared? That’s an age-old question we won’t be solving any time soon, but as long as we get songwriting as jubilant as this in the face of adversity, here’s to an eternity of misery. Keep an ear out for the stellar harmonies sprinkled throughout this and other songs on Dear Catastrophe Waitress. –Justin Gerber

Highlight: Murdoch loves him some Thin Lizzy. In addition to the Lizzy-esque guitar throughout and the cutesy “I’d rather listen to Thin Lizzy-oh,” seek out B&S’s The BBC Sessions for another tribute to the late Phil Lynott, in the form of “The Boys Are Back In Town”.

“Step Into My Office, Baby”

dearcatastrophe Belle and Sebastian: 12 Great Songs and Stories

Album: Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003)

Dear Catastrophe Waitress signaled a creative change for the band as producer Trevor Horn, famous for his work with Frankie Goes To Hollywood, among others, was brought in to add meat to Murdoch’s anecdotal bones. Horn’s imaginative, boisterous orchestral flourishes might have swamped the band’s customary gentility, and yet it works brilliantly — and nowhere more than on the opening track, “Step Into My Office Baby”. Far from excusing sexual harassment, the song is a glorious romp that blurs the roles of boss and employee, rather like Spader and Gyllenhaal in the film Secretary. Musically, there are shades of 10cc from its How Dare You! pinnacle, as the song speeds along its double-entendre way, punctuated by slower, reflective bits, rather like a miniature pop opera. –Tony Hardy

Highlight: The wind-down to a near stop three-quarters of the way through before the song picks up pace again to reprise its breezy last verse and chorus, and the line “She’s got an out tray full of guys.”

“I Didn’t See It Coming”

Belle-Sebastian-Write-About-Love

Album: Belle and Sebastian Write About Love (2010)

There’s usually something special about the opening track on a B&S album. Tigermilk set an Olympian high with “The State That I Am In”, and Write About Love (2010) doesn’t disappoint with its pop gem of an opener, “I Didn’t See It Coming”. The album itself was a mixed success, but this song is an absolute corker, a classic melody aligned to sparkling instrumentation and, with Murdoch taking more of a backseat, a “take me, I’m yours” honeyed lead vocal from Sarah Martin. It’s a mature track about the humility of growing older and finding solace in the banalities of life — hindsight that could only come with age. It helps that, on the surface, this is the type of pop that’ll dance your socks off, too. Just surrender. —Tony Hardy

Highlight: After a curious 20 seconds of near-silent drone, sonorous piano chords and jingling percussion usher in Martin, as she coos, “Make me dance, I want to surrender.” Who could possibly refuse such an invitation?

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