Love Letters

Belle & Sebastian's long-distance romance continues with The Boy With the Arab Strap

"I know I love Jo despite all the things I hate about her. I know I love her with as much certainty as I love Belle And Sebastian."

-- from Belle Lettres, a Web site of original fiction inspired by Belle & Sebastian

There are records that have been longer anticipated than Belle & Sebastian's The Boy With the Arab Strap; there are records that have been anticipated by more people. For sheer desperate breathlessness, though, you can't beat a Belle & Sebastian cultist. Lots of bands that have never made the charts have fan Web sites devoted to them, but few have fan sites as thorough and adoring as this one does, and still fewer provoke fiction written in the language of billets-doux. More than a few people have flown across the country, or across the ocean, to see the group play. There's a rather high-traffic e-mail list, "Sinister," devoted to the band, which once had a lengthy discussion about whether the subject of "A Century of Elvis" is a dog, a cat, or what. A copy of their out-of-print, vinyl-only first album, 1996's Tigermilk, just raised u810, or a bit over $1200, at an auction.

All this for a band from Glasgow, Scotland, that's played maybe 20 shows in 2 1/2 years of existence (B&S took lots of time off while its members were working or going to school or whatever); whose early publicity photos were arty shots of people who weren't actually in the band; whose only American appearances to date have been two rapturously received gigs -- one at a former synagogue in New York City, the other, a never-aired taping of the Chris Douridas-hosted Sessions on West 54th (the group decided its performance wasn't good enough); and whose first American label, the Enclave, coughed out a domestic edition of their second album, If You're Feeling Sinister, last year, then expired almost as soon as the band went home. In October, they'll be coming back for a few dates on the East Coast; they'll hit the West Coast early next year, then that'll be it for a while. Tireless self-promoters they aren't.

So why do so many people treat Belle & Sebastian less like a band than like their own personal boyfriend or girlfriend? Because they speak directly to smart, disaffected 19-year-olds, and to the smart, disaffected 19-year-old part of everyone else. Because they do so in the voice of someone who's discovering the world and trying to figure out what to make of it. Because they're sexy like a shy, funny, literate partygoer who's worked up the nerve to come talk to you. Because their lyrics have one perfectly wrought turn of phrase after another. Because Stuart Murdoch's songs are so indefatigably catchy yet he's so modest about it, that they can be welcome houseguests forever. In sum, because this band deserves it.

As Belle & Sebastian's chief songwriter, singer, and guitarist, Murdoch would be, you'd figure, the center of this cult of personality, its Morrissey figure. Instead, he tries very hard simply to be part of an ensemble: Four songs on the new album are written by his bandmates, and he hates doing interviews. "It's working without him doing it," lead guitarist Stevie Jackson explains by telephone from the Glasgow flat he shares with the group's violinist, Sarah Martin. "So if it works, why fix it? Some people in the pop world are really good at having a public persona, people with agendas who like to talk about things. But not everybody can do that." If you want to talk to the band, you get to talk to someone else. The songs are all we get of Murdoch.

The Boy With the Arab Strap is the subtlest of Belle & Sebastian's three albums, and it takes the longest to stake its claim in the head. Recorded over the course of nearly a year and monkeyed with extensively, it peers around corners, where Sinister and the Lazy Line Painter Jane EP came out and declared their passionate engagement with the moment. Murdoch sings like he's trying not to wake someone up, and the band mostly seems to be holding back -- the loudest sound on the album is a string crescendo. The lyric focus has changed, too: Most of the Arab Strap songs concern the world as it might be, rather than as it is -- dreams deferred or unwanted rather than not yet realized.

Themes aside, though, "quotable" is not even the word for Murdoch's lyrics. Audacious, touching, keenly observed, and funny as hell, they pull off things he has no right to get away with, flirting expertly with his audience. Sinister's "Mayfly" includes the dreaded "self"/"shelf" rhyme, ordinarily the benchmark of mediocrity; as a way of saying "So there," the subsequent "Put the Book Back on the Shelf" has the same rhyme in its chorus, and a new song includes a line about putting a book on a shelf again. (This time it rhymes with "I'm not as clever as Mark Twain" -- since when?) The title of The Boy With the Arab Strap alludes to fellow Glaswegian band, Matador labelmate, and occasional collaborator Arab Strap. Like that band, Murdoch goes on mumbling verse after verse even after the rest of the group is done, as if he's got more graceful turns of phrase than the song can reasonably hold.

He can be cryptic in a way that demands curiosity. (Jackson reports that people have asked him what "Judy and the Dream of Horses" is about -- "I don't know! I never wrote it!") More often, though, he just sketches characters in ways that capture them perfectly in a few words: "You are in two minds/ Tossing a coin to decide whether you should tell your folks/ About a dose of thrush you got while licking railings." And from time to time, there's a moment that sends you straight up. On Arab Strap, it's when a woman's voice emerges like an apparition from the Spectorian production of "Dirty Dream #2" to murmur, "In a town so small there's no escaping you/ In a town so small there's no escape from you/ In a town so small there's nothing left to do."

Murdoch isn't the only verbally gifted member of the band. Bassist Stuart David has written a couple of spoken-word-plus-music pieces that the outfit has recorded (including "Spaceboy Dream" on Arab Strap). Last year, he published Ink Polaroids of Belle and Sebastian, a little book of descriptions of imaginary photos; he's followed it with Little Ink Movies of Belle and Sebastian, scenes from the band's week in New York last fall. The city seems to have made a deep impression on the group: Jackson's "Chick Factor" is more or less explicitly about it (and named after the New York pop zine Chickfactor). The trip also led to a deal with Matador Records, which has reissued Sinister, is releasing Arab Strap in America, and plans a compilation of the three superb EPs the band put out last summer.

Not yet on the schedule: a reissue of Tigermilk. Released by Electric Honey (the house label of the music-business class at Stow College in Glasgow), it was limited to 1,000 copies -- on vinyl and, Jackson says, mastered very badly. That hasn't stopped people from wanting it. Some industrious soul has manufactured a Tigermilk CD bootleg with tracks from the band's BBC sessions appended; Belle & Sebastian's online fan club maintains a "Tigermilk registry" that's tracked down about 100 copies of the original LP. Each member of the band has one copy, though Jackson just auctioned his off for the hospital where he used to work as an occupational therapist's assistant. He had to give up the job when B&S went to America -- he'd run out of vacation days.

Tigermilk was originally conceived of as a one-off project. Jackson had met Murdoch in late 1995 at an open-mike show, during which the latter played his song "The State I Am In" ("So I gave myself to God/ There was a pregnant pause before he said 'OK.' ") "I told him I thought he was gonna be a big star one day," Jackson says. A few months later, Jackson had quit his own band and decided to take a break from music, when Murdoch asked him to play on his recording. He originally turned the offer down, but Jackson somehow ended up in the group that recorded Tigermilk anyway, alongside Murdoch, David, cellist Isobel Campbell, drummer Richard Colburn, and keyboardist Chris Geddes. All six of them are still in Belle & Sebastian, along with Martin and trumpeter Mick Cooke.

They are a small army now, and Murdoch, especially, loves to make use of their capacity for orchestral dynamics. All three of the band's albums begin with songs that go from his near-whisper to a full-on surge; on Arab Strap, the arrangements are more varied than before, shifting by degrees from one set of instruments to another, and occasionally providing some surprises, like the electronic pulse and bagpipe-ish analog synthesizers that propel "Sleep the Clock Around." The second half of "Spaceboy Dream" even approximates funk-period Miles Davis; Jackson's "Seymour Stein" is the most explicitly Velvet Underground-type song they've recorded (think "New Age"); and "The Boy With the Arab Strap" has an electric piano/handclap bounce that sounds like it might have been played at a glam discotheque in '72. And the new stuff sounds great on an airplane, too.

"Belle and Sebastian are the prettiest poets this land has to offer us, and we'd all be either dim, dumb or dubious to ignore this fact. Carve their names on your arms with your fountain pens."

-- from an online review of If You're Feeling Sinister

Belle & Sebastian fans who happened to fly Virgin Atlantic between the States and England early this year got a surprise: The band's exquisite, unreleased "Modern Rock Song" turned up on the in-flight radio channel. "That shouldn't have happened," Jackson says. "Someone had a copy of it, and they asked us and we said no, and they went ahead and did it anyway." It's easy to see why -- it's a grand, charming song, way better than its title suggests, and it's been a highlight of their live shows for more than a year.

It's also not on Arab Strap, and neither are a few other fan favorites. "Modern Rock Song" will eventually come out as a single; "Slow Graffiti," another absent notable, was written for the soundtrack of The Acid House, a forthcoming movie based on Irvine Welsh's book. Others may appear on singles or will be rerecorded for later use. Instead, Arab Strap includes two songs by Jackson, as well as David's piece and Campbell's "Is It Wicked Not to Care." Ceding the songwriting monopoly seems to be Murdoch's idea; he asked the others to bring in songs of their own. Jackson was dead set against it at first, though he was eventually convinced.

"To be honest, I'm still very uneasy about it," he says. "We've sold a few records now, but I think the distinctive element of the band is the songs. A friend of mine kind of rationalized it for me -- I suppose my favorite group's the Beatles, and he said, 'Just think of yourself as the Harrison of the band.' "

He ended up tailoring "Seymour Stein" for Belle & Sebastian, to the point where it's mostly explicitly about the group. It concerns what happened when Stein, the man behind Sire Records, came to Glasgow and bought them dinner. (Jackson couldn't make it since he had a dishwashing shift at another restaurant around the corner.) "I heard dinner went well," he sings. "You liked Chris's jacket/ It reminded you of Johnny/ Before he went electronic." Both of the other two songwriters on the album have been recording independently, too. Stuart David has a band of his own, Looper, which released a single a few months ago (including an alternate version of "Spaceboy Dream"); some solo songs by Campbell have been featured on a Web site David runs, the Treehouse, at www.treehouse.clara.net. (Mick Cooke also plays in a ska band, the Amphetameanies.) Still, Jackson is anxious to get on with more Belle & Sebastian stuff.

"I think the next one we're gonna put out very quickly," he says. "The first two LPs had five months between them, and we just wanted to do an LP every six months."

The new records can't come fast enough for the cultists. There's a crumpled piece of paper mounted on the wall behind the counter at Other Music in New York City, a record store where Sinister was among the top sellers for many months and where anything with a Belle connection (like Michael Shelley's new album, part of which was recorded with Jackson and Geddes in Scotland) is carefully noted on the racks. Inspection reveals it to be the set list from Belle & Sebastian's second show at the synagogue. It's placed there like some kind of trophy, some kind of good luck emblem. And if a lot of the songs that the store's customers remember fondly from that show don't appear on a record for a while yet, it gives them something to look forward to. Their loved ones will come back someday.

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