WHEN BELLE & Sebastian debuted with Tigermilk and its immediate follow up If You’re Feeling Sinister just months apart in 1996, Americans didn’t know exactly to which category of music they belonged. They weren’t grunge at all, which was dying a terrible death, and they weren’t Brit rock because they sounded nothing like Radiohead or Supergrass. The group’s Glasgow roots permeated their songs with the dichotomy of wondrous pop-folk melody and tragically mature lyrics, a hallmark of the band which they epitomized in their perfect 2000 album Fold Your Hands, Child, You Walk Like a Peasant. It seems that Americans found Belle & Sebastian to be something new and intriguing: a uniquely Scottish indie pop-folk band with a penchant for somber storytelling. Here, in their BBC Sessions, the band reflects on their catalogue from a crucial five years in their history that were composed by an evolving cast of musicians and instruments.
The BBC recordings display a series of songs, or different permutations of them, spanning from 1996 to 2001 much loved on their original albums, (“The State I’m In”; “Like Dylan In The Movies”; “Judy and the Dream of Horses”; “The Stars of Track and Field”; “I Could Be Dreaming”; “Seymour Stein”; “Lazy Jane”; “Sleep The Clock Around”; “Slow Graffiti”; “Wrong Love”) only here they have the sound of being played live and in your living room. To strip the Belle & Sebastian repertoire of its post production elegance makes for an interesting keepsake, a flawed and sometimes sloppy set of songs which still manage to keep their morose power as the children of Scotch mist.
Among the quartet of new songs, two (“The Magic of a Kind Word” and “Nothing in Silence”) feature Isobel Campbell on lead vocals, with her seductive and shy whisper of a voice. These are the highlight of The BBC Sessions, as her voice is much missed since her abrupt departure from the band in 2002. “Nothing in Silence” especially recalls the magic that she brought to tracks from previous years like “Family Tree” and “Is It Wicked Not to Care.”
One of the unreleased songs, “Shoot the Sexual Athlete” should have remained unreleased, as it is an utter failure to be anything close to appealing. Such Belle & Sebastian self indulgence isn’t new, though with previous attempts like “A Spaceboy Dream,” it was at least a bit interesting. It is an odd selection to release to the public, though perhaps in this collection of old treasures it’s allowing a new stinker into the bunch is at best appropriate, at worst forgivable.
This album is listenable, though the studio cuts of each of these songs are always preferable. Die-hard fans of Belle & Sebastian will no doubt feel the collection is a necessity, something of a greatest hits compilation, though for the casual listener it’s a mere curiosity. It captures the five years when the band was at their most prolific, though not their artistic height, and the omission of the majority of Fold Your Hands songs is a detriment to the collection.
The BBC Sessions includes a bonus disc of a live Christmas show recording in Belfast, Ireland, which was unavailable for review. The set list, however, includes Belle & Sebastian originals as well as covers of the Beatles, Velvet Underground, and Thin Lizzy.
Nicholas James McDowell is a copywriter in New York.
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