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Meet the Scottish masters of indie pop

Two new singles have built up feverish excitement for Belle and Sebastian's tenth studio album, expected in May 

Glasgow-based Belle and Sebastian. 
Glasgow-based Belle and Sebastian.  (Courtesy bellesglasgow/instagram)

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It is so easy to fall for the Glasgow-based indie pop band Belle and Sebastian. When they debuted in 1996—the year saw the release of two studio albums, Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister—fame and critical acclaim came to them almost immediately. Their personal and intimate vocals and their music, a quaint blend of 1960s melodic orchestral pop and 1980s indie rock, was a combination so appealing that it was hard not to become a fan instantly. Not surprisingly, by the time they released their third studio album, The Boy With The Arab Strap (1998), they had amassed a cult-like following.

Yet, Belle and Sebastian’s antecedents were humble. In 1994, Stuart Murdoch and Stuart David were two unemployed musicians who got a government-funded grant with the objective of recording a few songs and making a little bit of money—though it turned out to be something much bigger. Murdoch still fronts the band, which is now a septet; David left more than two decades ago. Since 1996, Belle and Sebastian have released nine studio albums, a few compilations, a couple of box sets, many singles, and a soundtrack for the film Days Of The Bagnold Summer (2019).

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Since they released their ninth studio album, Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance, in 2015, there had been no studio albums. Till a couple of weeks ago, when they announced both a tour and a new album. The album, titled A Bit Of Previous, will only be out in early May but excitement and anticipation among fans is already running high.

To some extent, that fan fervour has been kindled by the release of a single from that album. Titled Unnecessary Drama, it is a lushly arranged song. If the lyrics and music are any indication of what the album will be like, it will be worth the wait. Days after the release of Unnecessary Drama, the band released another single, If They’re Shooting At You, and a video in solidarity with Ukraine, where Russia has been waging a war.

Their songs often have a quirky strand of humour. In Unnecessary Drama, the opening lines go: I read your letter from before/ You’ve been having so much fun/ And is it possible you’re just telling me/ To draw me in?/ There’s an array of douchebags lining up/ To play their stupid parts/ And did you ever pause/ Before you gave your love away?

Belle and Sebastian are a fun band to explore. In an era where acute ADHD marks the way many people listen to music—hopping from one song to another because it is so easy to do that on phones or tablets—their albums are best experienced by listening the old-fashioned way, from the first song all the way to the last one.

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If you haven’t heard the band, it is difficult to choose which album you could start with—they are all so good. Many critics consider If You’re Feeling Sinister a masterpiece. I, however, like The Boy With The Arab Strap the most. Murdoch’s cutting wit and highly literate lyrics are outstanding on it, especially on songs such as It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career, a bittersweet melancholic song that is also full of humour. Or the wit on the title track from the album, which is a bit controversial because first, Arab Strap is the name of another indie Scottish band who have in the past accused Belle and Sebastian of hijacking their name, and second, well, Arab Strap is actually an archaic sexual device made of leather and a metal ring.

But there are so many more songs that can make one a fan instantly. Take, for instance, Another Sunny Day from the 2006 album The Life Pursuit. If there is a song I have to turn to when I am feeling low, it is this. No matter how bad things might feel, Another Sunny Day is always a wonderful, almost miraculous mood elevator.

When the band released the singles and announced the new album, I found myself building up a long playlist of Belle and Sebastian songs and shuffling them. It was the only thing that played on my headphones and my speakers for several days. Then, when I sent the playlist to a friend, she messaged back saying she had done the exact same thing—put all her Belle and Sebastian albums on repeat! The band’s fans can be fanatical.

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First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

@sanjoynarayan

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  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    04.04.2022 | 09:30 AM IST
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