Belle and Sebastian
The BBC Sessions
4 out of 5 Stars
Listening to the dance-begging northern soul of their most recent efforts, it’s almost easy to forget that Belle and Sebastian was once adored simply because its Scottish brand of chamber pop was so quaint. But Stuart Murdoch and company aren’t ready to reject that legacy of their quieter youth, even if they’ve increasingly ratcheted up their volume and energy ever since. Like any great band from the British Isles — which it certainly qualifies as — Belle and Sebastian has compiled its finest radio appearances for the ever-present BBC, gazing back at its vintage sound on The BBC Sessions.
With recordings from 1996, 1997 and 2001, the set is appropriately highlighted by cuts from 1996’s seminal If You’re Feeling Sinister. The band has long-disowned the fidelity of its most celebrated album — and for good reason; the mix is dense, dull and muddy. Ironically, the for-radio recordings of Sessions provide the best sounding versions available of many Sinister tracks. Far from squeaky-clean, Murdoch’s vocals on “Like Dylan in the Movies” posses a poignant analog warmth that embodies the track’s lyrical melancholy. Emphasizing rich texture over understated presence, the takes let the electric rhythm guitar take a prominence the studio album never did; it flourishes during the rock ending of “The Stars of Track and Field” and spews an intimidating growl on the previously timid “Judy and the Dream of Horses.”
While Sinister always gets all the hype, Sessions reiterates that the songs of predecessor and near-twin Tigermilk are accomplishments equally as impressive as their followers. Discretely drifting from an acoustic confession into a rollicking twee-pop, “The State I Am In” proves a dually perfect opener. It both builds in momentum and serves as a telling introduction to classic Belle and Sebastian, tracing a melodic path in purgatory between depression and bliss while chronicling domestic personal conflict. With the synths, guitar chords and vocals that are so spacey on Tigermilk are brought a bit closer to the ground, “I Could Be Dreaming” is just as melodically possessive functioning as a more straightforward rock ditty.
Dueting with Murdoch on a breezy runthrough of 1997 single “Lazy Line Painter Jane,” right-hand man Stevie Jackson shines in the spotlight just as he does on his own “Wrong Love,” a subdued early incarnation of “The Wrong Girl.” Unfortunately, Jackson’s “Seymour Stein” is as pedestrian as the album version, which famously inspired Jack Black’s character in “High Fidelity” to ask “Holy Shite. What the fuck is that?” To say that this “sucks ass,” though, would be a bit harsh.
Of the 2001 set, which introduces four otherwise unavailable songs, “Shoot the Sexual Athlete” is uncontestedly the most interesting. Doing his best Lou Reed impression, Murdoch confidently struts his speak-singing vocal over a seductive rhythm section groove.
The running theme throughout the disc is the band’s uncanny ability to reproduce their material live with note-for-note fluency. Though their early studio output was often wimpy, the performances swell with swagger and muscle definition without expending nuance.
The deluxe edition of the comp appends on a second disc featuring a 2001 concert from Belfast that serves as an ever more convincing document of Belle and Sebastian’s increasing stage poise. Gorgeous plays of “Dirty Dream #2” and The Beatles’s “Here Comes the Sun” rival each other in assured elegance, but the blow-out winner is a blisteringly nimble cover of Thin Lizzy classic “The Boys are Back in Town.”
Anytime an active artist begins releasing any sort of retrospective collections, it should be cause for alarm about their future. But regardless of the implications of The BBC Session on the band’s shelf-life, the look-back is another firm block in the foundation of the argument that Belle and Sebastian is one of the premier bands of its era.