Belle and Sebastian
The Boy With the Arab Strap
Goth can be a many-sided gloom. At its silliest, it's too much eyeliner on a suburban kid playing make-believe with death and destruction. At the other end are fashion nonspecific soundtracks of honest human entropy: the artist-as-fuck-up documents like Big Star's Sister Lovers/Third; Syd Barrett's psychotic solo adventures; and the Prozac-proof Pink Moon by Nick Drake.
Belle and Sebastian, a musical collective from Scotland, fusses and fidgets with life's lower moments in a way that puts them somewhere between the goofy and the gaunt. The band's latest, The Boy With the Arab Strap, tunefully journals an impatient life of exasperation and irritation with requisite amounts of depression and just the right hints of hope. It's thoughtful music for people who think too much; kinda like the Smiths, only more fey and folksy.
Belle and Sebastian is made up of seven--sometimes eight--musicians, none of whom is named either Belle or Sebastian. Indeed, the band's moniker is something of a mystery. It's based either on a pair of fictional characters from short stories written by lead singer/songwriter Stuart Murdoch, or it comes from a French novel about a boy and his Pyrenees mountain dog. It's all so very secretive, and Murdoch adds to the enigma by shunning interviews and refusing to have his photo taken. Whatever.
Cockamamie stabs at obscurity notwithstanding, Belle and Sebastian is a wonderfully intimate band. And the The Boy With the Arab Strap, the follow-up to last year's tremendous If You're Feeling Sinister, is an arresting album. The CD's dozen songs are like glancing at carefully printed entries in an oft-thumbed diary, a look at how a shy but perceptive soul muses on the vagaries of love and obsession. The disc opens with "It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career," which features Murdoch whispering in a soft, semi-lisp, "He had a stroke at the age of 24/It could have been a brilliant career," the sense of lost opportunity later including an old girlfriend who sits "sorry and resigned" at her lost love's bedside: "It's no wonder that/He is dribbling spit tonight/And the one he sent away/Was the only one who stayed." Not a pleasant picture. The last song on the disc, "Rollercoaster Ride," paints an equally uneasy portrait as Murdoch narrates the sorrows of a "frumpy" girl who wanders around town in a quilted jacket with "big pockets for the pharmaceuticals she takes to fix her brain."
In between these unsettling vignettes are more subtle cuts like "Sleep Around the Clock," in which Murdoch chronicles an aimless day of staying conscious ("Take a walk in the park/Take a valium pill/Read the letter you got from the memory girl/But it takes more than this to make sense of the day"), and "A Summer Wasting," a nicely crafted song about lazing away a summer doing nothing but "reading papers/feeling guilty/staying up all night."
The disc moves at a steady speed, neither raucous nor excessively morose, a collection of comfortably paced songs pocked with uncomfortable images. The few times Murdoch turns up the tempo, it sounds like an afterthought.
He's either toying with jazz elements, as with "A Space Boy Dream," a spoken-word reverie that becomes a kind of bed-sit hip-hop, or he's crooning in perky, but not too peppy, fashion about uncertainties and anxieties that turn angst into boredom.
The Boy With the Arab Strap is, above all else, an archly introspective album. Every junction of melody and chorus brings a hint of worried consequence for choices and indecision of the past. Yet any threat of wimpiness is canceled by a clear force of will. When, for example, Murdoch sings on the title cut that he intends to "colour my life with the chaos of trouble/Cause anything's better than posh isolation," he becomes a high-brow punk, a disaffected dreamer resorting to an angry, if elitist, subversiveness. Such honest displays of calculated disaffection are refreshing and add weight to what otherwise would have been an exercise in self-conscious twee.
The Boy With the Arab Strap will no doubt disappoint those with an extra Y-chromosome thumpa-thumping from their car speakers. This is alternative rock minus most of the rock, and at times Murdoch's soft-edged weariness with the world slouches well past the line of self-indulgence.
Even so, the material on The Boy With the Arab Strap makes for some of the smartest music to come out of the UK since kindred-soul Morrissey became the Oscar Wilde of the '80s.
What Is Not to Love
In a way, Roddy Bottum makes for an unlikely pop auteur. As the keyboardist for Faith No More, Bottum played a part in what was surely one of the most bombastic, obnoxious ensembles of the late '80s and early '90s.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
But Bottum's a talented guy, and few can deny his versatility. When, in the aftermath of Faith No More, he formed the San Francisco quartet Imperial Teen, he effortlessly switched to guitar (with occasional contributions on drums), a move that says a lot about this band's musical intentions.
Imperial Teen's music generally has no room for keyboards. It's stripped down, punky and propulsive, with angular guitar hooks and pretty pop melodies. The band's 1996 debut Seasick was a surprise critical fave, and the new What Is Not to Love is a further refinement of that album's ideas. At times, as on the album-opening "Open Season," Imperial Teen evokes Yo La Tengo or the poppier side of the Pixies, all disjointed charm and cryptic code-language lyrics. At other times, as on the goofy single "Yoo Hoo," it conveys the economy and irreverence of late '70s British new wave. But at all times it sounds unmistakably fresh when set against the wasteland that is turn-of-the-millennium alterna-rock.
Bottum and his bandmates don't tell stories, but rely on a few minimalist brushstrokes to create partial scenarios, to particularly great effect with the female-student lament of "Birthday Girl" and the stardom saga "Lipstick." But ultimately it's the music that makes this album work. As with most great rock bands, it's a sound so basic and stark that you end up wondering why all the losers clogging up the airwaves can't do it, too. But then that's the mystery that's kept rock alive every time it looked like it was ready to flatline.