Belle and Sebastian are back in action

Mike Morrone

Sometimes it is best to give a band another chance. Two years ago, I bought “Dear Catastrophe Waitress” out of curiosity (the record was billed as a return to form of sorts to their earlier works.) I spent some time with it, read the liner notes, which follow in the form of a narrative/confidential confessional, and even spun some songs a couple of times on my radio show. While the record was wholly enjoyable, it left almost no long-lasting impression on me. (John Cusack’s character Rob Gordon sums up my opinions of Belle and Sebastian from two years ago in the movie “High Fidelity.” When pressed by Barry (Jack Black) as to why he doesn’t want livelier, conversation-starting music playing in the store, Gordon replies matter-of-factly, “I just want to listen to something that I can ignore.”) For almost two years my CD resided in the corner essentially untouched.

Finally, awash in cash from my summer job and recalling the sagacious personal advice of a former writer in Verge, I purchased Belle and Sebastian’s opus “If You’re Feeling Sinister.” It was revelatory. After getting lost in that album’s insistent highs and heart-breaking lows, I craved more. After pouring over band history, I determined (with some gentle prodding from that same writer) that “Push Barman to Open Old Wounds” was the next logical step in my pursuit.

Belle and Sebastian, fronted by Stuart Murdoch, began as a student recording project in Scotland in 1996. “Push Barman” collects seven EP’s released on the Jeepster and Matador labels between 1997 and 2001. The song quality does not lack in comparison to their other output from the era, as one might expect from the usually uneven nature of EP’s in general. Resembling even more the throwbacks to which they are compared (including Orange Juice,) Belle and Sebastian show that LP format is not the end all in modern rock.

The band always does so much with so many, and still sounds so intimate and accessible. “Dog on Wheels” evokes thoughts of Love – the emotion as well as the band who made the seminal “Forever Changes.” Murdoch’s lyrics communicate keen observation, and the tight instrumentals are certainly augmented by trumpet playing from Mick Cooke. Murdoch has a penchant for self-deprecation and his fey vocals are a first person testament to the daily lives of him and his subjects in song. “Belle and Sebastian” begins with xylophone harmonies, and then really soars in the chorus, as Murdoch descends down with the bass line amid imagery such as cars crashing in the rain.

It is often said that Belle and Sebastian recreate a bygone world marked with simpler joys. “A Century of Elvis” just might be the epitome of this type of observation – the song is childlike reverie. The chiming guitars have equal standing in the mix with a thicker Scottish brogue describing an Elvis sighting. The story submerges underneath saccharine strings and reemerges from time to time, catching one off-guard by mentioning such topics as squirrels and honeymoons. The melody is the highlight, and was even reused by “A Century of Fakers.”

The second disc of the set finds the band becoming more communal with the song-writing. The songs stay as compelling as the earlier material, and even songs such as “Jonathon David,” sung by Stuart David are playful and friendly. It is of some astonishment that similar themes can be repeated to varying extents (change, humanity, love) without becoming overly trite or tiresome. The band also incorporates many sly literary references, such as Twain, Marx and Engells, even singing of the bourgeoisie in “Le Pastie de la Bourgeoisie.”

Overall, the two-disc, 23-track “Push Barman to Open Old Wounds” is a worthwhile purchase. The deluxe edition is particularly attractive, coming in a booklet form with color pictures of all of the seven EP covers, lyrics, and even traditional two pages of life from the little town of Glasgow. It very well may be the compilation of the year, and I would recommend it highly, as well as “If You’re Feeling Sinister,” which truly has no peer. Thank you, Belle and Sebastian, for teaching us about love … again.