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Love Letters 

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

Wednesday, Sep 16 1998
"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."

About The Author

Douglas Wolk


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