Belle & Sebastian
If You're Feeling Sinister
First Appeared at The Music Box, October 2000, Volume 7, #10
Written by Michael Karpinski
The uninitiated can be forgiven for thinking Scottish folk-popsters Belle & Sebastian a Simon & Garfunkel-styled, two-stools-and-a-steel-string acoustic duo. In fact, they are a dual-gendered, seven-member collective with an almost romantically nostalgic attachment to late '60s/early '70s AM pop. Equally revered and reviled in the British Isles, Belle & Sebastian have managed to establish only the most bantam of beachheads in the U.S., despite having released a string of consistently invigorating discs since 1996.
If You're Feeling Sinister may well represent the best stretch of that string — a record that neatly encapsulates the band's penchant for unrushed yet relentless melodies, full but unfussy arrangements, and humble but beatific epiphanies. Just give a listen to Like Dylan in the Movies, with its chutes-and-ladders, boogie-boots bassline; Me and the Major's unhinged, hobo harmonica; The Boy Done Wrong Again's exquisite violin bridge; Seeing Other People's perky, Peanuts Theme piano; Judy and the Dream of Horses' Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass accents; and, last but certainly not least, the lovely and lithe The Fox in the Snow, which evokes nothing so much as Burt Bacharach and the Carpenters covering the Stevie Wonder classic You Are the Sunshine of My Life.
Like a mildly-less-mordant Morrissey, lead singer Stuart Murdoch is just the sort of mischievous scamp who sneaks his big sister's sex-toy into show-and-tell and whose salty alternative lyrics to O Come All Ye Faithful at the annual Christmas pageant serve to infuse that tune with an altogether less liturgical tenor. Yet, his lazy, lilting tones can't help but betray him at every turn as a hopeless — and hapless — romantic. This seeming dichotomy makes for a decidedly satisfying jambalaya — one simultaneously unsettling and serene.
Like any band truly worth their mettle, Belle & Sebastian are something of an acquired taste — too twee and crystal-clean tuneful to appeal to fans of Massive Attack and Primal Scream; too '90s-ironic and self-consciously clever to make much of a dent in the Donovan and Petula Clark crowd. Bottom line — whether you deem them gifted assimilators or derivative wimps will likely have more to do with when you were born and what was playing on your parents' stereos at the time than anything else. To their credit, Belle & Sebastian have never professed or pretended to be cutting-edge musical revolutionaries. Surely, though, there's room in this huge and brutal universe for a band that can so affectively reconnect us to the soft-focus, smoke-and-mirrors magic of our pasts. ½
If You're Feeling Sinister is also available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2000 The Music Box