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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Album Retrospective: Belle & Sebastian - If You're Feeling Sinister

Album Rating: A+
From queer nobodies to overnight sensations, it's fair to say Tigermilk left Belle & Sebastian in a pretty good position. College funded and limited to a thousand vinyl copies, the LP catapulted the group to the very forefront of Scotland's independent music scene, simultaneously sparking a frantic label scramble from which Glasgow specialists Jeepster eventually emerged victorious. It was the type of achievement which smacked of a one-off - not that anyone bothered to tell Stuart Murdoch, the creative lynchpin around whom the entire outfit was based. Whereas most would have taken years and considerable thought following-up such a classic debut, Murdoch set about the task immediately, perhaps conscious he was in the eye of a purple patch most writers can scarcely fantasize over. The resulting album, If You're Feeling Sinister, surfaced a mere five months later, a side note which somehow winded up being one of the less remarkable facets to its blessed existence.

As you'd imagine, not an awful lot had changed during such a swift turnaround. The band, still in its relative infancy, had added violinist Sarah Martin to its ranks, but by and large everything else remained the same; a notion which can likewise be applied to Murdoch's songcraft. Tender, unassuming and outrageously melodic, these fresh compositions represented a logical continuation, revolving around the same themes of alienation, dreams and sexuality whilst conveying an identical sense of blissful naïvety. This time, though, there was a catch; far from mere rehashes, these songs were superior to their predecessors - far superior. They were in fact so good they managed to eradicate what few flaws Tigermilk had, ironing over the divots whilst reveling in their own self-conceived aural delights. No longer a prisoner in his own chronically-fatigued body, Murdoch's solace in music had seen him stroll casually and almost inevitably into the realms of pure unadulterated pop perfection.

You could pass hours discussing all the factors which make If You're Feeling Sinister a masterpiece. There's the withdrawn, isolated production, the unwavering coherence, the tasteful and varied instrumentation - even Murdoch's vocals, flat and fragile though they seem flawless slotted amongst such sublime surroundings. Ultimately though, this record is only as good as the ten songs from which it's compiled, and it's no exaggeration to say they paint Murdoch among the most gifted craftsmen of his - or indeed any - generation.

Perhaps the most striking example is "Seeing Other People," a cut which tackles themes of inner turmoil and homosexual experimentation turmoil with such moving sincerity it's practically impossible not to relate. Amid a swathe of looping piano, gorgeous violin and gently strummed guitar, refrains like "kissing just for practice," "we won't get in a muddle" and "seeing other people - at least that's what we say we are doing" roll effortlessly from the singer's tongue, masterfully encapsulating the feelings of innocence and confusion required to successfully negotiate such a delicate topic.

Elsewhere, Murdoch's way with a hook is also fully in evidence. "Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying" for instance douses his shamelessly twee contributions in a glorious stream of Stevie Jackson guitar licks, displaying the his folkier tendencies atop a sea of addictive, undisguised melody. Elsewhere, "Me And The Major" and "Mayfly" perform a similar trick with an added dose of spontaneity, while the stark wistful beauty of "Fox In The Snow" lays bare not only emotion but also the sheer diversity of talents at the his disposal. Then, of course, there's "Judy And The Dream Of Horses," a touching tale of nonsensical juvenile imagination whose spellbinding intimacy is almost akin to the group turning up unannounced in your front room.

Most good bands manage to stumble upon these strands of sheer, undistilled brilliance once or twice in their lifetime, with many subsequently building careers from their solitary moments of inspiration. Only the true masters strike gold with any degree of regularity, but even in such a brief time period it'd become obvious Stuart Murdoch belonged in that category. Perfect in virtually every sense, If You're Feeling Sinister is conclusive evidence of his genius; a staggering, majestic feat in songwriting which acts as a towering pinnacle for both Belle & Sebastian musical escapism as a whole. This was as good as it got. Improvement beyond possibility, there was only one way the collective and its talismanic leader could go. At this stage, the only question was how far they'd fall...

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Tracklist

1. The Stars Of Track And Field
2. Seeing Other People
3. Me And The Major
4. Like Dylan In The Movies
5. Fox In The Snow
6. Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying
7. If You're Feeling Sinister
8. Mayfly
9. The Boy Done Wrong Again
10. Judy And The Dream Of Horses

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