Belle and Sebastian - If You’re Feeling Sinister - Review
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critics' view

Appropriately enough for a band whose sheer bookishness winds people up, me and Belle and Sebastian got off on the wrong foot. In the late 90s, the speediest means by which a lad in his teens in the sticks in Scotland could feed his developing appetite for music was Channel 4 Teletext's Planet Sound. I scanned it religiously. Just who the hell, I questioned as 1997 turned into 1998, are these nobodies doing Oasis and the Verve out of Single of the Year? And with a song as wimpily titled as Dog on Wheels?

I dismissed the Glaswegians for the saps they clearly were, then spent the next few years rolling back on that snap assertion until they'd become one of my favourite bands. Belle and Sebastian's second album, 1996's If You're Feeling Sinister, has been a fixture of every stage of my life since. Subtly poetic, wickedly funny, gorgeously melodic, steeped in ramshackle C86 jangle and the pop classicism of Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground, it encapsulates everything I've come to treasure in music.

In 2011, where next to no band is un-Googleable and pop stars tweet about every changing of their socks, the band would struggle to preserve the aura of mystique that was so intrinsic to their early appeal. Back in the mid-90s B&S were so publicity-shy they didn't appear in their own photos and only broke cover via the likes of pored-over lo-fi Super 8 videos (who's Belle, and who's Sebastian?) and songwriter Stuart Murdoch's liner note stories.

Murdoch's lyrics read like the elliptical character sketches and confessions of a cynical, soft-voiced bedsit romantic, part peeping tom, part choirboy. On If You're Feeling Sinister, we meet his most vivid assortment of oddballs, from the disgruntled old gent in Me and the Major, a man – not unlike his narrator – perennially adrift from the times who "remembers all the punks and the hippies too, and he remembers Roxy Music in '72", to the title track's Hilary, a girl "into S&M and bible studies" whom her sleazy vicar took aside and "gave her confirmation". Get Me Away from Here, I'm Dying could almost address how Belle and Sebastian swam defiantly against the laddish tide of Britpop. "You could either be successful or be us," Murdoch sings, "with our winning smiles … with our catchy tunes."

Arguably any of Belle and Sebastian's first three albums could be considered their best, from their 1996 debut, Tigermilk – original vinyl copies of which change hands today for nearly as much as the cost of recording the thing – to 1998's The Boy with The Arab Strap, the one that demonised the band in the eyes of a generation of teeny-boppers by bizarrely enabling them to beat Steps and 5ive to the best British newcomer award at the Brits in 1999. It's worth noting, too, the remarkable body of standalone singles (Dog on Wheels included) and EPs originating from that era, as collected on the 2005 compilation Push Barman to Open Old Wounds.

Clearly there was some kind of magic in the Glasgow air during those bountiful two years between the summers of 1996 and 1998 and Belle and Sebastian were bottling it at the source. In fact, there's something about the band's relationship with Glasgow that has always felt especially important to me – like 80s Manchester to the Smiths or 60s New York to the Velvet Underground. Could If You're Feeling Sinister have been made in any time or place other than 90s Glasgow, with its detached air of rainy melancholy? Like more than a few people I've met over the years, Belle and Sebastian's music undoubtedly hastened my decision to move here to live and work, in the same leafy streets and red sandstone tenements that form the backdrop for those early Super 8 videos. I'm leaving the city soon, and I'll miss it sorely, but as long as I can put on If You're Feeling Sinister it'll never feel far away.

Malcolm Jack
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