Friday 22 November 2019

Rock: Return of Glasgow's darling of hip indie

Integral: Frontman Stuart Murdoch is a pivotal part of the Belle & Sebastian story
Integral: Frontman Stuart Murdoch is a pivotal part of the Belle & Sebastian story
John Meagher

John Meagher

On the night that Real Madrid beat Barcelona to effectively claim the 2012 league title, Real's Xabi Alonso tweeted that he was sitting alone in the Camp Nou stadium listening to Belle & Sebastian's 'Another Sunny Day' on his headphones.

That the former Liverpool favourite chose to reflect on a crucial win against their arch rivals in the company of a much-adored, but largely under-the-radar, indie band from Glasgow marked him out as a more cultured footballer than most. It certainly made a change from Queen's bombastic 'We Are The Champions' or the guns 'n' bling hip-hop adored by so many elite sportsmen.

But it shouldn't have come as too much of a surprise because Belle & Sebastian have long been a name to drop from famous admirers with discerning taste in music. From actress Carey Mulligan to huge-selling jazz singer Norah Jones (both of whom contributed to the last B&S album, Write About Love) to name-checks in hit films High Fidelity and (500) Days of Summer, the Stuart Murdoch-led male-female collective have enjoyed quite a reach, without ever troubling the mainstream.

On Friday, they return with a ninth album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, and although it features several songs to excite radio playlisters, it's unlikely that the Ed Sheerans of this world will be battling out with them at the upper reaches of the charts. Many of their fans wouldn't want it any other way: for the best part of 20 years Belle & Sebastian have delivered music that has been gloriously out-of-step with prevailing trends.

That was certainly the case on their 1996 debut, Tigermilk, an album that avoided all of the macho posturing and knowing retrovisionism of Britpop in favour of intimate, introspective songs that were gossamer-delicate but, once heard, marvellously enduring. While Oasis were in the studio throwing the proverbial kitchen sink - and helicopter noises - at their horribly bloated third album, Be Here How, Tigermilk's second track began with the sound of a cardigan zip being opened.

It was recorded in five days at a cost of just £1,000, but in its early months it barely sold. There is a story of a copy of the album sitting in the window of the band's favourite record store in Glasgow all summer and with not a single buyer to be found. But eventually its limited pressing started to sell and those who took a chance on it tended to be bowled over by the songs' quietly bewitching arrangements and keenly observed poetic lyricism.

Thanks to some old fashioned word-of-mouth recommendations, and the enthusiastic words of the hugely influential BBC DJ John Peel, this obscure album began to gather an audience and, within two years, copies were exchanging hands for £700.

Follow-up albums If You're Feeling Sinister (also 1996) and The Boy With the Arab Strap (1998) cemented Belle & Sebastian's reputation as the cerebral indie band of the age, and there were reverberations when, improbably, their fans marshalled to vote them Best Newcomer at the 1999 Brit Awards.

Despite the lofty status they have enjoyed among music critics, they have their fair share of detractors. Still, today, words like 'twee' and 'fey' get thrown at them, and there remain those who dismiss them as a hipster's band. But the beauty of Belle & Sebastian has been their willingness to explore new ground over the past decade or so, including the expansive pop of albums like the Trevor 'The Buggles' Horn-produced Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003) and the guest-heavy Write About Love (2010), and yet not lose sight of what made them special in the first place.

Murdoch is, of course, a pivotal part of the B&S story and he also cut his teeth as a movie director last year with the crowd-funded feature film, God Help the Girl. But the band has housed a richness of talent including former members Isobel Campbell, a beguiling singer and cellist, and Stuart David (who is set to publish his memoir of the group's early days next month) as well as long-term member Sarah Martin who contributes both vocals and violin.

Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance - a quintessential Belle & Sebastian title - is an absorbing collection and a perfectly good place for newcomers to the band to begin. Swathes of disco, '90s club jams and ABBA-sized hooks sit comfortably amid the meticulously crafted indie pop.

Murdoch has also delivered some of the most personal songs of his career, including album opener 'Nobody's Empire' which ruminates on the aimless lull he felt in the wake of leaving school and being diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME).

The album was recorded in Atlanta with the Grammy-winning producer Ben H Allen and it's their first album on the Matador label (home to such luminaries as Interpol and Yo La Tengo).

Bob Stanley, the founder of the pop band Saint Etienne and author of a recent acclaimed book on the history of pop, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, has long been an admirer of the band. "[They] have always understood well the art of song structure," he says. "They write precise and elegantly constructed melodies, and have never skimped with middle eights, bridges and codas.

"Belle & Sebastian are unique, unpredictable, and fiercely loved."

Indo Review

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top