It’s no fun having to deal with expectations. Just ask Belle and Sebastian.
While some bands try to climb their way out of mediocrity, the seven-person group from Glasgow, Scotland, has the trickier task proving they can still be the band that first wowed listeners a decade ago. They caught critics’ attention with their sardonic songwriting and wispy, deceptively complex chamber pop melodies. That ironic combination of subtly caustic wit and a twee sound gave them iconic status at coffee houses and liberal arts colleges around the world.
Without making a fuss about it, Belle and Sebastian scored an instant classic in 1996 with their first major release, If You’re Feeling Sinister, only to follow up two years later with the arguably superior The Boy with the Arab Strap. Meanwhile, vinyl copies of their first album Tigermilk have become prized collectors’ items. Their success represented less of a cult following than a phenomenon in a bubble. The band enjoyed critical acclaim and even broad name recognition while failing to reach the ears of the general public.
However, after establishing themselves as indie darlings, Belle and Sebastian hit a plateau. The group’s fourth and fifth albums were underwhelming compared to earlier works, and their experimental 2003 release Dear Catastrophe Waitress – while having moments of virtuosity – came off as unfocused and overproduced. The band seemed stuck in a rut of making good music for an audience that had come to count on something remarkable.
Yet if some lament Belle and Sebastian’s wayward drift, the band itself doesn’t seem too concerned. The group’s latest release, The Life Pursuit, is its most unlikely to date. With a seasoned Hollywood producer and a new approach to public relations, the band has come out with a bubbly 70s pop album that looks to reshape their notoriously fey image.
“We were very aware that if our records were played in a club next to other songs, they kind of sounded weak by comparison,” said guitarist and trumpet player Mick Cooke in an interview with The Hatchet. “I suppose in a way we wanted to make music that people could dance to, so that if we got played in clubs we could stand up to any other records. We were getting a bit tired of being that sort of weaker cousin. We felt it was time to kind of fight our way up a bit.”
That aim is highly relative. The idea of what Cook calls a “harder-edged” Belle and Sebastian is a bit like the timid weakling who shaves his head and starts drinking protein shakes. It’s still hard to imagine their music being played outside of college radio stations, let alone lighting up the dance floor. Still, The Life Pursuit is a departure for the band on multiple levels.
Often considered one of music’s more elitist bands, Belle and Sebastian have learned to open their collars and knock down a pint or two. All but gone are the cellos and violins found on their earlier albums, replaced by more spirited keyboards and amped guitars.
Complementing the more agreeable sound is a newfound acceptance of their celebrity. Once known for refusing interviews and issuing fake publicity photos, the group is promoting their latest release with a zealous push that includes their largest-ever U.S. tour.
“In the early days, there wasn’t a lot of talking to the press and not too many gigs, and people got the feeling that we were pretty awkward,” Cooke said. “I don’t think the band was really ready for that at that point. But people change, and I think we’re just much more ready to do that kind of thing now.”
Yet for all that’s different, what hasn’t changed is the sheer wit found in songwriter Stuart Murdoch’s unique storytelling format. The targets are the same as always: bourgeois charlatans, the sexually insecure and, most notably, the awkward adolescents and bookworm bohemians that comprise the band’s core fan base.
Indeed, one of Belle and Sebastian’s most endearing qualities is their tendency to mock those who feed their coffers. The two-part “Act of Apostle” follows a Catholic schoolgirl feebly trying to escape her preppy world, while “Sukie in the Graveyard” tells the pathetic tale of a runaway-turned-nude model over an implausibly sunny soundtrack. It’s what the Smiths might sound like if they hijacked the Partridge Family tour bus.
Yet as fun as it may be, the band is no doubt taking a risk with their new pop image. It has the potential to alienate old fans without necessarily attracting new ones. The immediate reaction will likely be indefinite. When the group brings their new sound to D.C. this weekend, expect them to be greeted with open arms. But also expect to hear plenty of calls for the Belle and Sebastian tunes of old.
Belle and Sebastian will play at the 9:30 Club on Sunday and Monday. Tickets are sold out.
This article appeared in the March 2, 2006 issue of the Hatchet.