published: 12 /
In our series, in which our writers write about ten songs that made them love a particular artist or band, Erick Mertx writes about his favourite songs by Belle and Sebastian
If you’ve ever written your favourite band’s name on your tennis shoes.
If you daydream in black and white.
If, as lead singer/band founder Stuart Murdoch might say, you’re feeling sinister.
The Scottish band, Belle and Sebastian has been providing twee, confessional folk infused indie-pop for upwards of two decades now. Starting in 1996 with ‘Tigermilk’ an album that was intended as Murdoch’s school thesis, through their upcoming ninth LP, ‘Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance’ the band has been nothing but prolific in the studio and live. And it all started with a collection of soft and disarmingly charming songs that have become modern day standards.
Although Belle and Sebastian have become something of a collective, key band mates coming and going, Murdoch has remained, steadfast in the midst of a storm of change. With a distinctive, monochromatic cover design style that mimics their legendary predecessors, the Smiths, and a sonic pallet that broadens what one might expect from a band with a seemingly narrow scope of influences, they continue to evolve while staying true to their signature topics. Doting lovers. Lost dreams. Playground folklore retold with an eye toward romance. Glasgow’s Belle and Sebastian have transcended successful pop band status, enduring turmoil, becoming something of a phenomenon along the way.
Here are ten Belle and Sebastian songs that made me fall in love with the band.
‘Like Dylan in the Movies’
My first memory of hearing this song was in the one punk rock record shop/café in Corvallis, Oregon, Uncle Hungry’s. The woman behind the counter with the Dead Moon tattoo on her shoulder was singing the song at the top of her lungs.
Is this the quintessential Belle & Sebastian song? Maybe. For me, the iconoclastic aspects of my musical past (I had been baptized in the church of Bob Dylan by my father) and future coalesced in a series of moments like that one. I bought the vinyl LP of ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’, the album on which it appeared, listening to it over and over, over a break-up with a particular reverence for the velveteen darkness, delicate accents and the uncertain outro.
‘The Wrong Girl’
Frankly, I’m not a fan of ‘Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant’ in spite of its witty title but this song is a little piece of magic. Absolutely sublime.
‘(Don’t Fear) the Reaper’, Live @ Moore Theatre, Olympia, Washington September 2001
Everything in the scene was surreal. Only a few days out from 09/11 attacks. Theatre crowded. Uneasy tension filling the air. The two cops waiting by the old theatre’s front doors gave me pause to ask, “Are we living in a police state now?”
Belle and Sebastian performed a killer set of original material, as expected, but it was their cover of the Blue Oyster Cult song that absolutely crumpled my heart. I stood against the back wall, watching as they played the eerily prescient classic to a hushed congregation. No one moved a muscle. The song, just like our lives, had a new and underlying meaning that we were only beginning to discover.
‘I Don’t Love Anyone’
This song from ‘Tigermilk’ simply grabs a hold, twists its grip and refuses to let go for dear life. Once I saw it on HBO’s ‘Girls’, I was jealous that Lena Dunham had taken the song to another level. My first time hearing the song was on KWVA, college radio in Eugene and I simply had to turn it up to the limits of my tinny car radio.
‘Piazza, New York Catcher’
I’m a huge baseball fan, and for me, there is a certain, necessary sense of humor surrounding my relationship to the sport. I love how these bookish Scots decided to riff on Mike Piazza on 2003’s ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’ at the apex of his tabloid stint in New York. I mean, he was so worthy of ridicule, with his frosted tips and bat flip.
On my first trip through ‘Tigermilk’ this was the song that I felt signaled Belle & Sebastian as worthy of something more than just confectionary pop band status. This song had chops, exhibiting interesting songwriting, and would set a lyrical tone for their entire catalog. Stuart Murdoch has made a living out of singing to the sleepy, convoluted legions of like minds. The decades have been kind to the Belle & Sebastian brand of smart kid/bedroom pop, and nowhere is that formula more prominent than on ‘Expectations’.
‘The Boy with the Arab Strap’
One of the houses I lived in post college, was so busy with the in and out of visitors that they actually had a lost and found. Their parties were great. I recall a Day of the Dead party that was so packed that the guests teemed on the opposite street sidewalk. Music. Chicanery. I think there was boxing. Brilliant.
The DJ put this song on at mid-party peak and my immediate thought was, “that’s not a party song.” Within seconds though, the whole house packed as tight as sardines and everyone began bouncing in unison, singing, dancing.
‘Stars of Track And Field’
A song again from ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’ that Morrissey probably listens to and bits his lower lip with jealousy over. So much dangerous sexual tension, yet so very simple.
Wide-eyed isn’t the right word to describe the 22 year old me shopping in the Manhattan Tower Record store. I descended the elevator, three new CDs in hand, ready for my foot course through the bustling city. For some reason, I questioned the purchase of the ‘Legal Man’ single (even though I wanted it, badly). I would be on foot all day, and a single seemed an impractical purchase.
When I finally put the CD (on my Sony “discman”) I was in a dank, SoHo bookstore, lit by high windows covered in a decades old layer of filth and grime. I immediately disliked the song. It felt too deliberate, really, but I kept listening (perhaps because I had to). This was the first Belle and Sebastian song that I actively disliked, yet it pulled me closer, knocking on my door, begging for another listen. By the time I got back to the Bronx, I actually liked it. Kind of.
‘The Fox in the Snow’
Idyllic setting. Powerful imagery. This song, another from ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’, speaks to the band’s namesake. The song never gets old and never precious enough even though your doubter friends will call it a cliché.
‘The Rollercoaster Ride’
Best album closing track, maybe ever in my humble estimation. This song fits my thesis of why the album as medium is so important. Sequence matters. The song is so melancholy, so resigned, yet given to bright bits of enigmatic beauty. I always listen to the track twice when running through ‘The Boy with the Arab Strap’ (my favourite Belle and Sebastian record) as though rewinding and playing back a film’s end sequence, hopeful of unearthing one last shadow on which to turn the plot further out.
Photo by Billy Seagrave