23 September, 2012

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #23


Belle and Sebastian, If You're Feeling Sinister (Jeepster Recordings/Matador, 1996)

I pretty much thought I'd hate this record because it was reputed to be almost aggressively fey, semi-orchestrated indie pop. And indeed, it is almost aggressively fey, semi-orchestrated indie pop. So was The Life Pursuit, a later album of Belle and Sebastian's I once heard and greatly disliked when I wasn't being bored to sleep by it. Make no mistake - I am generally not the target audience for this kind of music. So what makes me like this record? And what makes me bump this above The Life Pursuit, or many other examples of bad and actively irritating music? The differences between so many failed albums full of twee birdshit and this one are simple: songwriting and honesty. The songcraft here is extremely difficult to deny, and what's more the style is fairly hard for me to deny as well. If You're Feeling Sinister almost sounds like a combination of the late-'60's Kinks at their most placid, easily satiric and relaxed with Bryter Layter-era Nick Drake. Those are really good artists for me to be reminded of. Many of the songs here have that same irresistible verve and subtle rhythmic drive that characterized songs like "Hazey Jane II." And yes, these songs are honest. This music is obviously genuine. I may be a devotee of noise rock and hardcore, but I'm not going to sit here and say that everyone should make loud music about how much they hate themselves and the world around them. Stuart Murdoch could no more make hardcore punk than Ian MacKaye could sing U2 songs. It may not be something I want to hear every day, but this is subtle, beautiful and melodic music, and Murdoch's lisping, soft tenor voice sounds disarmingly natural over these songs. It's almost impossible to hate this record when you're alone with it, unless you're so insistent on being bombarded with noise that anything less than speed-guitars going crunchacrunchacrunch at 1000 miles per hour sounds like shit to you. I could understand not liking massive fans of this band, but the record itself is sweet and decent, and often funny.

If there's one real problem I have with this record as a whole, besides how unbelievably fey it is the entire way through (sorry), it's that you have to read the lyrics in order to get how funny they often are, because Murdoch's diffident singing disguises them most of the time. That's a drawback, because often enough the lyrics here are clearly Smiths-inspired in the best way - influenced by Morrissey's over-the-top wit and humor, not his ruminative and self-indulgent despair. The title track has a deeply amusing line about a girl who's into "S&M and bible studies," and it ends by suggesting that the key to conquering religious doubt is masturbation. There are other problems here and there - the overactive harmonica on "Me and the Major" is a major, whinnying annoyance, the trumpet on "Judy and the Dream of Horses" is sort of ridiculous, and the sappy strings on "The Boy Done Wrong Again" push the song just over the line into corny territory - but overall, I can't do anything but say that this is a very good, extraordinarily pleasant, mild and cynical record. Mild and cynical. That's a much harder combination to pull off than it sounds.
 
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