Belle and Sebastian
"If You're Feeling Sinister"
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die + 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die
Sorry friends; I've been away taking care of various matters for the last couple of weeks, so now, without any flair or attempts at an opening paragraph: "If You're Feeling Sinister" by Scottish group Belle and Sebastian.
Belle and Sebastian, a rotating group of instrumentalists surrounding primary vocalist Stuart Murdoch, is a band that simultaneously deserves a nod from dozens of groups today, but at the same time was not enormously groundbreaking. As a seven piece during "Sinister," the band was certainly not the first to incorporate alternative instruments into its brand of rock. Single "Seeing Other People" features a cello largely taking the place of the bass, a trick today most popularly employed by Vampire Weekend (Isobel Campbell, the cellist on this album, is currently part of a touring duo with Mark Lanegan, former vocalist of The Screaming Trees, last week's guests). The occasional trumpet solo from Mick Cooke (such as on "The Stars of Track and Field") are also reminiscent of later music from CAKE. Instrumentally, as a whole, the group most resembles The Arcade Fire.
On the other hand, Belle and Sebastian and Fire are on opposite ends of the spectrum. For all of the instrumental similarities, the approaches are dramatically different. The Arcade Fire tends towards bombastic, while B&S are understated in every aspect of its performances. Compare for example the organ introductions to Fire's "Intervention" and Sebastian's "Mayfly." Whereas the former is loud and proud, the latter is subdued (undoubtedly from both playing style and production trickery). Every song on the album features gentle strumming and gentle drumming. It's tough to label the B&S as "alternative rock," but the group is just too ornate to be "folk." The silence suits Murdoch well, as his voice is almost a quieter version of Decemberist frontman Colin Meloy, meaning it couldn't compete with full-blown orchestration.
Of course, Murdoch's strength isn't in his volume, but in his songwriting skills. He doesn't care much for typical AAB structure, but leaves just enough of a hook or repeated phrase to keep a listener's attention. "Seeing Other People" demonstrates his cleverness as a writer. What seems, based on title and a majority of the lyrics, to be a break up ballad, is actually the narrator calling for his narcissistic self to branch out, as opposed to "kissing your elbow…kissing your reflection."
Belle and Sebastian isn't the best start for every aspiring alternative listener, due to its subtle nature. If you prefer easygoing folk music, it's great, but if you prefer harder rock and heavier guitars, check out The Arcade Fire first.
INTERESTING FACT: Just like with its music, the band likes to keep a low profile. In the early days, they were unrecognizable enough that they could get away with sending friends to take their places during official photo shoots, including the booklet for "If You're Feeling Sinister."