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Belle and Sebastian have got the goods

By Stephanie Zacharek

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  Short of its being one of most spectacular and moving pop albums of the year, Belle and Sebastian's The Boy with the Arab Strap (Matador) has very little to do with the Beatles. And yet, listening to it, I'm drawn to the memory of an early scene in Backbeat, Iain Softley's wonderful 1994 movie about the Beatles' early years. Four boys leave their home in Liverpool, heading to Hamburg by boat to play rock and roll: as they're about to shove off, George Harrison's mother appears, rushing to catch up with him -- so she can give him the scones she's made for him to eat on the trip. The moment represents the classic dare of rock and roll: to make a grab for success, you've got to leave the depressing port cities and the homemade scones behind. But I also love the way that moment quietly affirms that a group of boys who'd go on to make some of the most sophisticated and delightful pop music of the late 20th century already had that sophistication deep inside them. They weren't dreamy-eyed explorers setting off to the big city to find something; they were importers, with the goods packed up and ready to take with them, an act requiring its own kind of bravery.

And somehow, that's how I think of Belle and Sebastian, a quietly brilliant eight-piece band from Glasgow fronted by singer and guitarist Stuart Murdoch. Not that they're the equal of the Beatles (though they're heirs). And they don't seem to have much hunger for fame -- perhaps the shyest band in the world, they dislike being photographed. Yet if both their demeanor and their subject matter seem deliberately unassuming -- many of their songs are about people who are frozen like J. Alfred Prufrock, afraid to take a chance -- the confidence, craftsmanship, and sheer beauty of their sound is overwhelming.

That's what makes me think of the "paradox" of somebody's mum running after a group of geniuses with a bag of homemade baked goods -- and of how it's not really a paradox at all. Belle and Sebastian's songs -- here on The Boy with the Arab Strap, as well as on their 1997 masterpiece If You're Feeling Sinister -- are sharply etched miniatures of small-town life, remembrances of the people you knew and hated there, of the people who broke your heart as well as those whose stupidity and small-mindedness made you want to stab them with a well-sharpened pencil. On paper, it all sounds perilously twee and small and inconsequential. But Belle and Sebastian's music is such a peculiar mix of innocence and intensity that it ends up sounding anything but simple -- a reminder that true sophistication is really just a combination of simple elements like a well-polished guitar line or an organ trill that ripples like a flag in the breeze. "Sleep the Clock Around" -- a song about how hard it is to muster the energy to make a mark on the world, but one that hints at the deeply instilled (and very real) insecurities that can hold us back -- is the tired person's version of "Rock Around the Clock," and yet it pulses with quiet energy, the breezy, casual trumpet and smooth keyboard gradually building into a chocolate marble swirl of sound.

Belle and Sebastian are the only band I can think of who could build a whole album -- maybe even a whole career -- on exploring how hard it is to take action in life without turning their songs into an exercise in mopery or turbid introspection. They understand a very basic truth: that though everyone wants to jump out of bed in the morning and have a go at the world, sometimes there are devastating consequences to taking action.

On "Chick Factor," a man who's been traveling on business -- might he be a musician? -- reflects on all the likable, intriguing women he meets without even trying; then he admits how far away, literally and figuratively, he feels from his girlfriend. With its plaintive piano-based melody, it's one of the most poignant songs I've ever heard about what it's like for a good man to ponder cheating. "Do I like this girl?/It's such a big world," Murdoch sings in his characteristically downy-soft voice, but even though there's an edge of determination in his words, his melancholy seeps into whatever sexual excitement he feels. Earlier, in another song, he'd urged, "Ease your feet off in the sea, my darling, it's the place to be," and then, with even more conviction, "It's an emergency/There's no more wait-and-see." With unassuming greatness, Belle and Sebastian weigh one of life's biggest conflicts: there's no time to waste, but you must think carefully before you act. Sometimes, eating the peach is exactly what you must do, and sometimes it can ruin your life. The trick lies in making your best guess before you take your first bite.


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