Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Soft rock

Belle and Sebastian: The Life Pursuit (Rough Trade, 2006)

The songs of Belle and Sebastian sound familiar without it ever being quite possible to pin down what it is they sound like. Sometimes, of course, they sound just like other B&S songs, so that opener 'Act of the Apostle' pits Stuart Murdoch's airy tones up against Chris Geddes' jazzy electric piano, the same juxtaposition that made 'The Boy With The Arab Strap' so damn catchy. Other familiar motifs are present: the 'Legal Man'-style everything-but-the-kitchen-sink single ('Funny Little Frog'); the lugubrious Mick Cooke trumpet solo ('Dress Up In You'); and, of course, the title that can only be B&S (in this case, 'Sukie In The Graveyard').

But their palette is bigger and brighter than that, as is their collective palate; what's always kept them going is the tension between their "hello-trees-hello-flowers" whimsy and hard-headed rock 'n' roll encyclopaedophilia. They can lurch from the 70s pop-boogie-stomp of 'The Blues Are Still Blue' (a shotgun wedding of Chicory Tip and Middle Of The Road) via 'Song For Sunshine''s jolly jazz funk and on to the pounding beat of 'To Be Myself Completely', which could have filled the floor of the Wigan Casino. In fact, few acts have been able to ape so many diverse musical styles so expertly and with so little apparent effort since The White Album.

The band's wondrously eclectic jukebox is impressive but, as ever, it's the words that bite hardest. "She's a Venus in flares and you wanna split hairs!" ('The White Collar Boy'); "My Damascan Road's my transistor radio" ('Act Of The Apostle II'). And when the jokes get too painful, Murdoch is happy to acknowledge the fact: "Another sunny day, I met you up in the garden," he trills. "You were digging plants, I dug you, beg your pardon."

Possibly acknowledging B&S's literary bent, the CD is packaged like a mini-book, with a proper spine, and Q&As spawned by the band's fans and foes (Barry the man: "Why are you all so fucking gay?") in a neat little attached booklet. All, of course, in good-quality matt paper, not the shiny crap the band's lesser rivals use. I'm always dumbfounded that so many publishers of print media fail to realise the aura of quality that a matt finish gives to their product. It's like film stock over video.

At least Paul Whitelaw has taken the hint in his biography, Belle and Sebastian: Just A Modern Rock Story (Helter Skelter). It's a nicely constructed hardback, with the page edges artfully torn so the book resembles a roman that Jean Seberg might have picked up at a newsstand at the Gare du Nord. (With the cash she made from selling the Herald Tribune, of course ...sigh...)

The book is an official version, to the extent that Murdoch gets credit for designing the cover, and Whitelaw is at pains to torpedo the lazy myths about the band; chief among them that they're fey, twee lightweights. The head Belle's love for prog behemoths Yes, not to mention his fondness for football, should kill those. Although the original name of his band's first incarnation - Lisa Helps The Blind - is just too cute for reality.

In fact, they're a pretty hard-nosed bunch all round, determined to play the music biz game by their own rules; when they started out, they avoided playing live, doing interviews, even being photographed. Their 1999 Brit Award (for Best Newcomer, around the time of their third album) could have been a springboard for massive commercial success; but they were in the studio, making their next record, so that was that.

This toughness may be a reflection of a little-known facet of the band that Whitelaw unearths; several of them had an academic leaning to the sciences, surely a rarity in pop circles, Brian May's astronomy obsession notwithstanding. Mick Cooke was set to be a pharmacologist; Chris Geddes was a physicist; as was Murdoch himself, before being sidelined by chronic fatigue syndrome (and there's a stereotypical B&S disease if ever there was one). How that scientific bent coexists with the leader's equally incongruous Christian beliefs is another matter.

Unfortunately, Whitelaw seems have been over-influenced by the early B&S, and the priority they gave to charm over getting the notes in the right order. Sometimes he just displays the need for a decent editor, or even a spellchecker. The dodgy vol-au-vent that floored Mick Cooke at the Brits doesn't have a 'Z' in it; and what is this 'Kassenatz-Katz' of which you speak, sir? More significantly, after tracing in meticulous detail Isobel Campbell's progressive disillusionment with band life, he places her eventual ship-jumping a whole year earlier than it actually happened. Incidentally, this sub-saga does produce one of the best quotations in the whole book, when Isobel justifies her dislike of touring thus: "You're always fishing around for things in your suitcase, it hurts your back."

It could well be argued that a rigorously proofed and fact-checked biography would be anathema to what Belle and Sebastian stand for; that what Whitelaw provides is nuance, feeling, passion, rather than sterile truth. After all, most fans would argue that the ramshackle debut Tigermilk is better than the overproduced, overwritten, infinitely more expensive Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant. But following that logic, the story should have been written by Sarah the violinist in purple felt-tip on the back of a postcard of Julie Christie in Darling and mailed to each and every one of us. This may be "just a modern rock story" but surely it's worth getting it right.

To his credit, Whitelaw does provide value for money, providing an exhaustive discography, plus a list of every cover version B&S has performed. Again, many of the choices dispel the 'twee' pejorative; they include 'Problem Child' by AC/DC, Lynyrd Skynyrd's 'Sweet Home Alabama' and 'The Boys Are Back In Town' by Murdoch's other raawwk idols, Thin Lizzy. Meanwhile, although they've tackled the 'Gallery Theme' from Vision On, those staples of the indie-cutesy repertoire, the tunes from the TV shows White Horses, Rupert, not to mention Belle et Sebastien itself, are absent.

Now available on DVD, this French-made 13-parter was a mainstay of summer-holiday BBC viewing in the '60s and '70s. Or was it? I can remember White Horses, of course, and also The Flashing Blade and The Magic Roundabout, but this one stirred no primal memories of sunny days, mivvis or white dogshit.

No matter. It's the tale of the Pyrenean mountain dog Belle, who is condemned to death by the inhabitants of a village in the French Alps, and of Sebastien, the child who is determined to protect her. It's in black and white, of course, and with its clunky titles and clunkier dubbing (English in French accents!), it's easy to see the ramshackle charm that first endeared the show to Stuart Murdoch. (Belle and Sebastian - the band - dutifully thank the show's createur, Cecile Aubry, on their album sleeves.)

But its indie credibility goes deeper. The protagonists are both outsiders. Sebastien is a foundling, whose mother died in a blizzard, leaving him in the care of the villagers. He's routinely bullied for his 'gypsy' origins; moreover, he is named for the saint on whose day he was found, the epicene icon whose arrow-studded suffering so entranced Oscar Wilde. Belle, too, is cast out of society for her alleged violent tendencies; and what's a Pyrenean doing in the Alps anyway?

As with so much Camusian existentialism, it's very much artifice. Medhi, the boy who plays Sebastien, was Aubry's own son, and appears to have had first refusal on all her subsequent shows. He later went on to be a big player in the French pharmaceutical industry. The Mick Cooke de ses jours?

And in case B&S decide to be unpredictable by being entirely predictable, the closing song 'L'Oiseau' (performed over the credits by Medhi) can be found here. Solo spot for Sarah, perhaps?


Robert A. Swipe said...

Life Pursuit's a belter, isn't it, Tim?

Thanks for the Revolution #9 link too - I'd never been able to make out that snippet of chat between Derek Taylor and George Martin before.......I think that calls for a new hi-fi, don't you?

New Mozzer out next weekend - should cushion the blow of "My Arsenal" being humbled at Craven Cottage....

"El Dorado!"


Tim Footman said...

Certainly does belt, Bob. although I must admit, I still carry a torch for the first two albums.

Can't say I sympathise with the Arse's difficulties, being, if anything, a Pompey fan. (Celeb supporters: Fred Dinenage; Joe Jackson; er... that's it.)