Belle & Sebastian
The Boy With the Arab Strap


So this is how the pop contract works, circa 1998...

Belle & Sebastian first showed up on my radar about a year or so ago. I dismissed them, the apparent duo of their name leading me to think of Sonny and Cher, Seals and Kroft—in short, precious folkie nightmare. But I looked a little closer. And saw Smiths comparisons. Now as I remember it, Chuck D. killed the Smiths dead about 10 years ago. Anyway, I always found the Smiths more "Eh" than Epochal...

I had a $5 coupon redeemable at fall out of a Rolling Stone I borrowed from the library, so I was wandering around their site looking to buy. I searched for Belle & Sebastian and saw "The Boy with the Arab Strap" at 9 something dollars. I listened to 35 seconds of three staticy, interrupted-by-rebuffering Real Audio clips and thought I might be in love. It was off to the secure server to place my order...

And by some happy linguistic accident, the phrase "real audio" goes a long way towards explaining this album.

"The Boy with the Arab Strap" is "real", in the post-modern sense of being almost irony-free. Ironically, one of the few discernible moments of irony is a Smiths reference that pops up in "Seymour Stein". (In detailing a meeting between some of the band and the famous record exec, it is noted that one of the members "reminded [Seymour] of Johnny/ Before he went Electronic.")

It is "audio", or perhaps even "real audio" in its desire to be a pre-CD CD. The track listing is purposefully divided between tracks 1-6 and tracks 7-12, aka Side 1 and Side 2. The last track on "Side 1" (the aforementioned "Seymour Stein") has a typical side-closer's mentality—a big orchestrated wind-up plus sound effects (an airplane taking off). There is an exaggerated silence between tracks 6 and 7 (the record being flipped).

On "Ease Your Feet in the Sea" a little audible studio chatter sneaks into a silent moment the way it used to on old Beach Boys records (owing to producer Brian Wilson's partial deafness).

And then there's the adherence to the Moe Tucker Paradigm, in which the female singer gets lead vocals on one song (see also the Beautiful South, the Pogues, Yo La Tengo).

To be sure, there are some duff moments here. "Chickfactor" is cut from the same confessional cloth as "Norwegian Wood", with some Rolling Stones' references ("It's the singer not the song/ 'Something's gone wrong'/ Said the spider to the fly") playing tentpole. Awkward and not a little tiresome. Likewise "A Space Boy Dream" is a spoken word foray that, like the second and third Velvet Underground albums, will remind you what the program button on your CD player is for. It is redeemed by being short and segueing abruptly into the wonderful 60s soul of "Dirty Dream Number Two".

The centerpiece of the album is the title song, and it begins with a brilliant line: "A mile and a half on a bus takes a long time" (this is the pop world's version of karmic retribution, as one of the worst lines you'll ever hear is now clogging the airwaves, courtesy of Alanis Morrisette: "How about getting off these antibiotics?"). The song's only misstep is the last verse, which makes physical the implied onanism of time spent in the "solitary cell of your mind"—the band seem almost guilty about taking this turn, as it is delivered in a whisper and fades out before the last line on the lyric sheet, about a Sunday spent masturbating in the bathtub.

So essentially the comparisons to the Smiths do not wash—Belle & Sebastian are not animated by a spirit as passive/aggressive as Morissey (their summer is spent "pleasantly", not indoors "writing frightening verse/to a bucktoothed girl in Luxembourg"), or driven by chords as glammy as Johnny Marr's.

Really what it all comes back to is love, or rather Love. Call this a 90s version of that group's seminal "Forever Changes", and get me a pen—I've got a contract to sign.

Doug Parker

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