Starting Five: Belle & Sebastian
by Chad Jewett
More or less an opportunity for the Internet to tell us we’re wrong, Starting Five is also a challenge: choose five essential songs, films, or books that get to the heart of bands, filmmakers, and writers that we love. Today, to celebrate Matador’s remastered vinyl reissue of the band’s entire catalogue, we choose five essential songs by Scottish indie-pop greats Belle & Sebastian.
“The State That I Am In”, Tigermilk (1996)
First impressions don’t get more roundly perfect than “The State That I Am In”, the hushed-yet-acerbic first song from Belle & Sebastian’s 1996 debut LP, Tigermilk. Marrying pastoral indie to wry lyrics of bitter confessionalism, the song gave us a surprisingly complete first glimpse at the formula that would define the Glasgow band for the next two decades. Defined by Stuart Murdoch’s dulcet falsetto – a gentleness that was frequently belied by the bite of the song’s narrative – and a breezily shuffling collegiate-pop lilt, “The State That I Am In” provided an ideal entre into the weary, earth-toned melodicism of the Scottish band, equal parts Morrissey-esque satire and K Records sweetness.
“Me and the Major”, If You’re Feeling Sinster (1996)
Spryly upbeat and set to a punk-ish strum, “Me and the Major” offered an additional bit of athleticism to the day-dreamy pop surfaces of Tigermilk for the band’s second LP, the much-beloved If You’re Feeling Sinister. Stuart Murdoch’s storytelling feels somehow more expansive, as does the band’s aesthetic, which arrives like a more orchestrated, polished version of the bedroom pop casualness of the band’s debut. The widened boundaries and increased kinetics of “Me and the Major” would increasingly become the rule for Belle & Sebastian – especially on the 1-2 symphonic pop punch of Dear Catastrophe Waitress and The Life Pursuit, but in the context of the 1996 classic the song arrives like a sudden burst of energy, a spare day of sun amongst a two-record span of charmed glumness.
“Is It Wicked Not To Care?”, The Boy With The Arab Strap (1998)
Featuring the cooing, practically whispered high alto of Isobell Campbell, whose gauzy harmonies were key to Belle & Sebastian’s pleasantly wistful sound, “Is It Wicked Not To Care” is one of Campbell’s few moments taking the lead, and is a centerpiece of 1998’s underrated The By With The Arab Strap. Atop a brushed-snare drum that sounds like rustling leaves and a breathy slab of organ and prickly guitar, Campbell offers a detail rich narrative of nostalgia and loneliness, a lovely centerpiece to an album that found Belle & Sebastian ultimately condensing their literary, autumnal evocativeness into compact, stirring form.
“I’m A Cuckoo”, Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003)
After the ambivalent critical reaction to 2000’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, Belle & Sebastian responded with the 2003’s excellent, reinvigorated Dear Catastrophe Waitress, an energetic high-pop LP that married the band’s novella lyrics to giddily extroverted theatricality. At the center of that renaissance was “I’m A Cuckoo”, an excitable confection of witty Northern soul that is more or less perfect both in its album version and in an Avalanche-helmed remix that adds a patina of Afro-pop to the song’s already melody-rich surface. Featuring one of Stuart Murdoch’s strongest melodies (“Glad to see you / I had a funny feeling and you were wearing funny shoooooes”) to a swinging major key bounce that plays like some mix of Moondance-era Van Morrison and Thin Lizzy, “I’m A Cuckoo” was “The State That I Am In” for Belle & Sebastian’s second act – a massively enjoyable reintroduction.
“For The Price Of A Cup Of Tea”, The Life Pursuit, 2006
If Dear Catastrophe Waitress offered glimpses of the band’s new-found obsession with American soul and R&B, then “For The Price Of A Cup Of Tea”, an absolute masterpiece of orchestral indie pop, found the Glasgow band wholly committing to the perfectly-composed élan of Motown. Essentially a beautiful pop song about the beauty of pop songs (the song is largely devoted to the joy of buying records), every inch of “For The Price Of A Cup Of Tea” dazzles, from the chirping flutes to the chattering, air-tight guitars to Stuart Murdoch’s playful croon (“For the priiiiice of a cup of tea”), which shares the spotlight with a looping ribbon of organ and a gummy, churning bassline. The song, archly hidden in the penultimate spot on the criminally underrated 2006 LP The Life Pursuit, is the band’s maximalist masterpiece, threading together the band’s playful, detail-oriented narratives to a groove that’s equal parts Hitsville and twee-pop, “I Second That Emotion” and “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side”.