It seems impossible to describe Scottish band Belle & Sebastian without using words like “precious” and “whimsical,” which are the two adjectives least likely to describe any of my favorite bands. That precious whimsy (or whimsical preciousness) is the cardigan-sweater-wearing heart of twee pop, the fey subgenre that typically grates on my nerves—and the one Belle & Sebastian came to epitomize beginning with 1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister.
When the album came out, I was in my junior year of college and spending a lot of time at my school’s radio station, KCOU, which opened my musical horizons beyond the steady diet of punk on which I subsisted for years. I was a budding indie-rock snob—Yo La Tengo had blown my mind at a show in late ’95—so I was primed to greet Belle & Sebastian’s delicate songs with open arms. Yet I have little memory of If You’re Feeling Sinister’s release. It’s like remembering someone from a party years ago, but not recalling much about him other than you weren’t very impressed.
I paid little attention to Belle & Sebastian as the band wowed the indie world with albums like The Boy With The Arab Strap and Dear Catastrophe Waitress during the ensuing years. When the group toured with The New Pornographers, I only stuck around for a few B&S songs. It’s not that I dismissed the band outright; I just filed Belle & Sebastian in my mind under “quiet, kind of boring bands people seem to like.”
I’m a rock guy at heart, so I favor music that has a bit of aggression, even if that’s simply in the form of distorted guitars and a steady beat. Yet a few months ago, when Amazon had one of its periodic and highly dangerous $5 album-download sales, I bought If You’re Feeling Sinister. And at first it delivered what I expected: clever, well-crafted pop songs with occasionally annoying preciousness.
The twee kicks in quickly with opening track “The Stars Of Track And Field,” with its references to “kissing girls” and “innocent boys” in the first few lines. This may sound silly, but there’s something about the way frontman Stuart Murdoch says “boys” and “girls” that sounds especially fey, and it inexplicably irks me. Maybe it’s because Murdoch’s accent enhances the preciousness, or maybe it’s because I find it annoying when grown adults refer to each other as girls and boys, like they’re on a playground or playing kickball in an adult recreational league. There’s a hint of that kind of extended adolescence on If You’re Feeling Sinister, because it seemingly dwells on young adults fumbling their way through their first relationships and sexual experiences. Some of the lyrics could have come from an angst-ridden teenage diary, like the supremely mopey “The Boy Done Wrong Again,” which closes with this groaner:
All I wanted was to sing the saddest song
And if you would sing along I will be happier
The very next song—album closer “Judy And The Dream Of Horses”—begins similarly:
Judy wrote the saddest song
She showed it to a boy in school today
Sad songs, boys, school: These are the kinds of preconception-affirming lyrics that give me an itchy pause-button finger. They’re also not representative of the album as a whole, because Murdoch is a much better lyricist than these would indicate. He’s like a less bitchy Morrissey, peppering his clever lyrics with ironic barbs. The title track is a five-minute-long scoff at organized religion that ends with this zinger:
But if you are feeling sinister
Go off and see a minister
Chances are you’ll probably feel better
If you stayed and played with yourself
Musically, If You’re Feeling Sinister is thoroughly… pleasant. Buoyed by the septet’s clean guitars, horns, organ, and strings, this type of sunny folk-pop knows no other way to be. It also doesn’t hit me on a gut level; my favorite songs typically get their hooks in deep quickly, but I was able to walk away from If You’re Feeling Sinister without a scratch. Even my favorite tracks, like “Me And The Major,” “Judy And The Dream Of Horses,” and “Mayfly” (which has a punk power-chord progression in its bridge), may have had my foot tapping but didn’t make me want immediately listen to them again.
I put part of the blame for this on the almost lifeless, flat production of If You’re Feeling Sinister. Belle & Sebastian was a young, unproven indie band with commensurate recording resources—and this was long before anyone with a laptop could make a decent-sounding album—so said flatness is understandable. But it bothered Murdoch enough that he recorded a live performance of the album for All Tomorrow’s Parties in 2005 as a corrective. For me, the difference is pretty significant. The songs don’t sound like they were recorded with pillows over the mics. The mix is more balanced, so the instruments pop more. And, of course, there’s 11 years of experience playing these songs giving everything a natural cohesion. Belle & Sebastian was notoriously sloppy and timid in its early days, but the climactic end of the live version of “The Stars Of Track And Field” sounds supremely confident and, dare I say it, rocking.
It’s interesting to bounce between the album tracks and their live counterparts to note the differences. The arrangements mostly remain the same, but everything sounds, unsurprisingly, livelier. The two incarnations of If You’re Feeling Sinister offer a perfect example of the “You gotta see them live” phenomenon. The original version of the record did little for me, but its live counterpart found traction. Could this phenomenon translate to other bands whose music is lost on me? Is there a live Beach Boys album that will finally make me care?
Probably not, but my newfound semi-fandom of Belle & Sebastian will do. I’m still not interested in your kickball league, though.