Love letters

Belle and Sebastian'slong-distance romance continues with The Boy With the Arab Strap

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."

Murdoch isn't the only verbally gifted member of the band. Bassist Stuart David has written a couple of spoken-word-plus-music pieces that the band has recorded (including "Spaceboy Dream" on Arab Strap). Last year, he published Ink Polaroids of Belle and Sebastian, a little book of descriptions of imaginary photos; he's followed it with Little Ink Movies of Belle and Sebastian, scenes from the band's week in New York last fall. The city seems to have made a deep impression on the band: Jackson's "Chick Factor" is more or less explicitly about it (and named after the New York pop 'zine Chickfactor). The trip also led to a deal with Matador Records, which has reissued Sinister, is releasing Arab Strap in America, and plans a compilation of the three superb EPs the band put out last summer.

Not yet on the schedule: a reissue of Tigermilk. Released by Electric Honey (the house label of the music-business class at Stow College in Glasgow), it was limited to 1,000 copies--on vinyl and, Jackson says, mastered very badly. That hasn't stopped people from wanting copies of it. Some industrious soul has manufactured a Tigermilk CD bootleg with tracks from the band's BBC sessions appended; Belle and Sebastian's online fan club maintains a "Tigermilk registry" that's tracked down about 100 copies of the original LP. Each member of the band has one copy, though Jackson just auctioned his off for the hospital where he used to work as an occupational therapist's assistant. He had to give up the job when the band went to America--he'd run out of vacation days.

Tigermilk was originally conceived of as a one-off project. Jackson had met Murdoch in late 1995 at an open-mike show, during which the latter played his song "The State I Am In" ("So I gave myself to God / There was a pregnant pause before he said OK.") "I told him I thought he was gonna be a big star one day," Jackson says. A few months later, Jackson had quit his own band and decided to take a break from music, when Murdoch asked him to play on his recording. He originally turned the offer down, but Jackson somehow ended up in the group that recorded Tigermilk anyway, alongside Murdoch, David, cellist Isobel Campbell, drummer Richard Colburn, and keyboardist Chris Geddes. All six of them are still in Belle and Sebastian, along with Martin and trumpeter Mick Cooke.

They are a small army now, and Murdoch, especially, loves to make use of their capacity for orchestral dynamics. All three of the band's albums begin with songs that go from his near-whisper to a full-on surge; on Arab Strap, the arrangements are more varied than before, shifting by degrees from one set of instruments to another, and occasionally providing some surprises, like the electronic pulse and bagpipe-ish analog synthesizers that propel "Sleep the Clock Around." The second half of "Spaceboy Dream" even approximates funk-period Miles Davis; Jackson's "Seymour Stein" is the most explicitly Velvet Underground-ish song they've yet recorded (think "New Age"); and "The Boy With the Arab Strap" itself has an electric piano-handclap bounce that sounds as if it might have been played at a glam discotheque in 1972.

Belle and Sebastian are the prettiest poets this land has to offer us, and we'd all be either dim, dumb, or dubious to ignore this fact. Carve their names on your arms with your fountain pens.

--From an online review of If You're Feeling Sinister

Belle and Sebastian fans who happened to fly Virgin Atlantic between the U.S. and England early this year got a surprise: the band's exquisite, unreleased "Modern Rock Song" turned up on the in-flight radio channel. "That shouldn't have happened," Jackson says. "Someone had a CD-R of it, and they asked us, and we said no, and they went ahead and did it anyway." It's easy to see why: It's a grand, charming song, way better than its title suggests, and it's been a highlight of their live shows for more than a year.

It's also not on Arab Strap, and neither are a few other fan favorites. "Modern Rock Song" will eventually come out as a single; "Slow Graffiti," another absent notable, was written for the soundtrack of The Acid House, a forthcoming movie based on Irvine Welsh's book. Others may appear on singles or be re-recorded for later use. Instead, Arab Strap includes two songs by Jackson, as well as David's piece and Campbell's "Is It Wicked Not to Care." Ceding the songwriting monopoly seems to be Murdoch's idea; he asked the others to bring in songs of their own. Jackson was dead set against it at first, though he was eventually convinced.

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