What began as a school project became a template for an entire genre
In the annals of rock music, few bands seem as fey and lightweight as Belle and Sebastian.
The Scottish group with a rotating line-up but centered around the stalwart Stuart Murdoch has gained a reputation as twee, a term usually employed to deride the sort of navel-gazing acoustic pop that Nick Drake put on the map in the 70’s, and which is supposedly the darlings of critics and not too many others. But here’s the thing: B&S freaking rock out, on tunes as diverse as “Lazy Line Painter Jane” to “Dear Catastrophe Waitress,” “The Wrong Girl” to “Jonathan David.” I love them, and they may just be the last band that I unabashedly fell in love with, way back in 2000 with their album Fold Your Hands, Child, You Walk Like a Peasant. But their first album, their first proper album, came out four years before, and it defies any expectations you might have if your knowledge of Belle and Sebastian is derived from the reputation as twee hipsters that they acquired over the years.
Tigermilk began life as a school project, with Murdoch recruiting musicians around Glasgow to help him record a set of songs that he’d written for a university course on how to record an album. Recorded in March of 1996, it saw the light of day in limited release that June, and was reissued years later after their second album (If You’re Feeling Sinister) had put them on the indie map. Again, if you think you know B&S from their more acoustic, dreamy songs, you won’t be surprised by the bulk of the tunes here. But there’s a monkey wrench thrown into the notion that the band could *only* do twee songs about school days and misunderstood girls who read Kafka and worship the Velvet Underground.
The record opens with “The State I Am In,” a funny declaration of purpose that sets the tone for the record: Murdoch begins solo, strumming along to himself wistfully until the band gradually starts to come in and flesh out the sound. It’s not a knock-down-the-door-and-punch-you kind of opening track to a debut album, but for B&S it puts you on notice that this is going to be a gentle seduction into a cockeyed view of life, and you’d best be ready to ride along. The obvious reference point for a lot of the band’s imagery is 1980s indie darlings The Smiths, and Belle and Sebastian clearly put a lot of thought into the sleeve covers for their singles, much less their albums. There’s more than a touch of Morrissey (the lovable morose version, not the more recent racist and prima donna version) in Murdoch’s lyrics, and while you’d be hard pressed to picture him or the rest of the band waving a bouquet of flowers around as they sing, it’s easy to imagine the debt that they owe to their Mancunian forefathers on this opening track.
“Expectations” might be my favorite track on the album, and it cropped up for use in the film Juno back in 2007. The song basically captures the concerns of a young woman who’s trying to make her way in a world where she doesn’t quite fit in (hence the appropriate use of it for Elliot Page’s career-making role). The line about life-sized models of the Velvet Underground was the one that made me realize I could fall in love with this band; I’d picked this up sometime after getting their 2000 album, but I wasn’t quite sure if it would be worth the effort to invest myself in them. This song helped set me on the right course.
“She’s Losing It” is another female-focused track, about a young woman who’s not doing so well, either. “You’re Just a Baby” is sort of their innocuous baby-talk song, which could be framed from only reading the title as an insult, but the actual song is pretty sweet. Other great tracks on the album include “My Wandering Days Are Over,” an ode to love that really gets under your skin the more you hear it, and “Mary Jo,” the final track, which I avoided for a long time because of the opening (it sounds a bit weird), but the song itself is another sweet track. I once read a review of an Iggy Pop album that claimed there was always one track on each of his records (starting with the Stooges and continuing in his solo career) that was skippable because it wasn’t that good; for me, that rule can also apply to B&S, and “We Rule the School” is that song. I think I’ve listened to it once all the way through during the decades I’ve owned this album, and maybe not even that much. In a way, it’s every bit the stereotypical B&S song that non-fans might associate with twee moroseness.
VIDEO: Belle and Sebastian perform “Electronic Renaissance”
To go back a bit to Mancunian forefathers and also defy expectations about what a Belle and Sebastian song can be, I have to highlight “Electronic Renaissance” here. The first time I heard this song I thought to myself “wait, since when did they discover electronic music?” But “Electronic Renaissance” works for me in a way that suggest New Order; not the slick, polished New Order of “True Faith,” but the early, hesitant post-Joy Division group struggling to find a new way after their album Movement in 1981, with herky-jerky electronic songs like “Everything’s Gone Green,” the original single version of “Temptation,” or even their biggest hit “Blue Monday.” Belle and Sebastian might not be the first name that comes to mind for electronic music, but this song, and some of the others they’ve done over the years (including the remix of “Your Cover’s Blown”) show that the twee lads from Scotland could drop a few E’s and party with the best of the hedonists.
Tigermilk, as I said, didn’t see wide release until after If You’re Feeling Sinister, but it’s Belle and Sebastian’s first appearance on the scene. And twenty-five years later, a lot of it still holds up and still shows the ways in which the band both conformed to a sound and defied any expectations of doing so.
Debut albums can capture an artist or group exploring all the possibilities, not limiting themselves to what sells just yet because they have no clue what will and what won’t. Tigermilk (topless album cover and all) defies any categorization except as really good, really fun music. And B&S never really stopped promising that to us, the loyal fans.