There used to be a ‘night’ in Toronto called “Blow up”, so named from a cult film of the same name from the 60s. It changed venues a few times but I’m pretty sure its final resting place before calling it quits was on the upstairs level of the famous El Mocambo lounge. I frequented this ‘night’ many times over the years, especially in the late 90s, because the DJs played a good deal of the music I enjoyed: British indie in the early hours and Northern Soul and Motown later on. It also helped that I was on speaking terms with a couple of the DJs.
I mention these nights of debauchery this morning because it was here that I first heard tell of Belle and Sebastian. I remember Darrell and Trevor, two of the aforementioned DJs, drunkenly raving to me about this band, ensuring to me that any one of their first three albums would be worth checking out, and drilling their name into my own drunken psyche. Why I picked “The boy with the arab strap” to sample first, I will never know for certain, but I did fall in love with it. And this was only the start of a decades long infatuation with the band.
Belle and Sebastian are quite well known now and likely as influential as the Scottish twee pop bands that influenced them, but back in the late 90s, they were largely ignored by North American mass culture. Led by Stuart Murdoch, his vast collective of multi-instrumentalists have put out a brilliant body of work, favouring EPs almost as much as they did full-length albums. They have built up so much of a following that they are no longer as ignored here on this side of the Atlantic and tour here quite regularly.
“The boy with the arab strap” is still one of my favourite albums, not just because it was the first that I first explored, but also because it was so focused on being counter mass music culture. Many of its songs are not just anti-pop songs but they actually reference the major labels’ attempts to court them. Like those DJs, Darrell and Trevor, impressed upon me, to really know them, you should take in a whole album by Belle and Sebastian, but in the interest of saving time, here are my three picks for you.
“Is it wicked not to care?”: Where B&S’s fist couple of albums were generally generated by Stuart Murdoch, this third album was more collaborative, with more of the band’s talented members contributing to the writing duties. “Is it wicked not to care?” was not only written but also song by Isobel Campbell. Yes, she of the Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell collaborations. She was a member of the collective for its first six years and here, her soft touch on vocals works its wonders, fitting right in with the feel of their album. All wistful and longing and angst-ridden, the dark lyrics glossed over with plenty of sunshine in the music. “If there was a sequel would you love me like an equal?” Awesome.
“Sleep the clock around”: Campbell adds her vocals on this track as well. Only this time, she duets with Stuart Murdoch, the two of them whispering a sort of rant that feels sung without taking a breath, a sort of second person narrative of youth, a pep talk for the disaffected. Laying a base for all these words is a cacophony of relentless drums, trumpet, keys, and even bagpipes (this last to close out the song). As a track two that follows a quiet opener, it’s quite the alarm clock that definitely wouldn’t allow you to sleep through. It is incessant and urgent for all its diffidence and knowing asides, you can’t help but feel cooler, just for listening to it.
“The boy with the arab strap”: I almost feel that this album would still be in this number one position, even if it were only this track, the title track, played over and over again. Yeah, it’s that perfect in my opinion. It’s got that endless organ loop that pulls you in and drags you under. The piano flourishes, the peppy drumming, and of course, the handclaps all serve to get your feet tapping. And from there it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to the dance floor. And I don’t even know how many times at the aforementioned “Blow up” (after the aforementioned conversation, of course) that this song dragged me up to jump and hop around to this song and sing along with its hilarious sketches and observances on the craziness of life. And, yes, to shout along with when he gets to the line that described the hero we all aspired to be in those days. “We all know you are soft ’cause we’ve all seen you dancing. We all know you’re hard ’cause we all saw you drinking from noon until noon again.” Brings back lots of good memories. I think.
In case you missed them, here are the previous albums in this list:
10. Sloan “Navy blues”
9. Cake “Prolonging the magic”
8. Embrace “The good will out”
7. Mojave 3 “Out of tune”
6. Rufus Wainwright “Rufus Wainwright”
5. Manic Street Preachers “This is my truth now tell me yours”
4. Pulp “This is hardcore”
3. Neutral Milk Hotel “In the aeroplane over the sea”
2. Billy Bragg and Wilco “Mermaid avenue”
You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.