Monday, May 29, 2006

The Boy With the Cherub Crap

After ten years of ardent recommendations from friends, I may be finally opening up to Belle & Sebastian (BS). Or not. I've gone through BS's early works, LPs and EPs through Arab Strap, with mixed reactions. I write this post with the hope that someone will read it and be inspired to convince me that I should bother with the remainder of their oeuvre.

I think I understand the pull of BS. Sweet, direct melodies, intricate arrangement, and clever, literate lyrics that extend beyond the scope of the singer (a welcome change from pop/rock's solipsistic tendencies). For those who would mistrust BS's seemingly perfect songcraft, all of this comes off very genuinely.

My problem is that very little of it is interesting. Perhaps it's their insistence to filter their music through the styles of their 60s/70s idols (Arthur Lee, Simon & Garfunkel, Paul Simon, etc.). However smile-inducing their music or witty/involving their literature, I'm always left with the feeling that nothing of substance has passed through my head. Of course it doesn't help that the greatness-to-dud song-ratio (of at least their LPs) is highly variable, never exceeding 2:1 and as low as 1:3 (Arab Strap?). But even at their best, they never seem to offer anything beyond what their idols were offering via radio, 30 or 40 years ago (barring maybe lyrical content). See "I'm Waking Up to Us" off of the same-titled EP. Vocals, guitars, violins, and various wind-instruments played/arranged to great excitement, emotional impact, and wit. But this is nothing Love never achieved all over its first three LPs. It's not that BS doesn't acknowledge this, either; the singer has Arthur Lee all over his lyrics and delivery. Just, in the end, the imitation comes off as somewhat superficial; the Love records develop these ideas to much greater and more meaningful ends.

It doesn't help that the reviews for records succeeding Arab Strap tend to be mixed or less than positive. Sinister was great. Almost timeless (at least the first 7 songs). The surrounding EPs were also consistently enjoyable (3 6 9 is my personal BS favorite). After going from Tigermilk up through Arab Strap, I'm left with ~80 minutes of great music that may nicely fit on a mix CD (and hopefully won't leave me with mixed feelings). Is this it though? Should I continue? Does BS ever push the boundaries of its craft? Or will I just be left "tired of this BS"?


At 2:24 PM, Blogger ryunited and it feels so good said...

Rubbish! No band is perfect, but Belle and Sebastian are a brilliant band - gentle, thoughtful and broken.

I think the main problen here is that you are studying them as if they were a deliberate band - meticulously trying to recreate a sound.

The beauty of Belle and Sebastian for me is that they were a group of pals who put together an album for a school project before they were a band. These guys love music and they are just having fun. There is no pretention about it at all.

I strongly recommend their DVD for anyone interested in the band - it provides a really interesting look into their work and progression as a band.

At 8:41 AM, Blogger Mugshot said...

BS is a talented bunch. They have produced lots of above-average music. And I often think that what Colin Meloy does would be impossible without them. I hear things in melody and inflection that Colin seems to have absorbed in his Decemberists' material. This may be because I'm listening to Fold Your Hands right now.

Rpshyena is correct that BS is largely a rehashing of some '60s and '70s stuff. (I hear a lot of Motown and Zombies.) But there is something different there. Like Beck, maybe?

There is something to be said for a band that is immediately identifiable, say, within a few seconds of putting on a song.

This brings up a bigger question: if we can listen to something from the '60s or '70s that is better, then why listen to music that only rehashes it?

"Woman's Realm" from Fold Your Hands has just come on. At best, it sounds like a decent motown cover.

At 10:35 AM, Blogger ryunited and it feels so good said...

Barf. Who cares if they are inspired by really good music from the past?

They are a bunch of friends who appreciate and inspired by great music - they try to have fun and make good music in the process too.

I think people get too caught up in the "rehashing" criticism - I've heard the same thing said about Interpol - but they are brilliant too.

My girlfriend saw B&S play Milan four years ago, and told me a great anecdote of how they tried to learn an Italian song to perform in the audience's native tongue and I've seen them doing a cover of Os Mutantes' classic "Baby" at a festival in Brasil -> I don't think they are derivative, they just love music. What's wrong with that?

At 12:51 PM, Blogger Mugshot said...

Inspired by great music from the past and copying great music from the past are two pretty different things. I don't think the important thing here is that they are friends, and it's not all that important that they're having fun -- after all, plenty of great bands succeed because of tension among band members and because they work hard to create a sound. The bottom line for me is the music, and yes, they make good songs, and so yes, I like listening to them.

But for better or worse, how much of it is an original sound and a new statement, and how much is just a bunch of guys serving as, essentially, a '60s cover band does affect my appreciation of the band and their work as a whole.

And as for Interpol: I like Interpol, but I don't think they're brilliant, just like a don't think Belle and Sebastian are as brilliant as some do. Interpol is not brilliant because more than just the groundwork was already laid for them. I like it but I'm not impressed. Belle and Sebastian, maybe, but Interpol didn't do anything that Wire didn't create 25 years ago. And what was Belle and Sebastian's school project? Write songs in the style of your favorite bands of the 60s and 70s, and sing them quietly? I'd give them an A, but that's about it.

So, in short, there's nothing wrong with the fact that BS loves music, and I'm glad they do, because my life is just a little bit better since I listened to IFYS last night. But maybe BS, creatively, (and Interpol, certainly) really aren't the best of the best.

At 2:27 PM, Blogger rpshyena said...

Just finished going through "Fold Your Hands" several times. No stand-out tracks; however, I like this a lot more than "Arab Strap", much of which seems to me like a half-hearted "Sinister". Here, at least, they appear to be trying new ideas, even if these ideas are still derivative, and none of them work out wonderfully. Check the first track ("I Fought in a War") as Decemberistic inspiration. Track 3 ("Beyond the Sunrise") is the worst song ever recorded. It boggles me that this Stuart David fellow was ever allowed to put his voice to tape.

Listened to 1/3 of "Storytelling" as well. Mr. David on harmonica - not so bad. Track 18 ("Big John Shaft") is great, the lyrics cleverly noting the problem of repetition that B&S and many long-lived bands deal with.

If I had to draw the line between early B&S and mature B&S I think I would draw it before "Fold Your Hands". Somewhere around "3 6 9", "Arab Strap", or "Modern Rock Song". "Catastrophe" may hold the key to this question. Please post your thoughts.

At 7:10 PM, Blogger FriedOreo said...

Good to see the Mongrel awakened by some thoughful debate.

First, I should say that I don't know that much about B&S. Ryunited introduced me to them in college after we saw a band cover "Sleep the Clock Around"--a fantastic song by any measure, and one where the band is at its best with melodic swirls, a steady tempo and slow build-up, and smart lyrics. In other words, the song has tremendous emotional effect but still seems understated; that's the band's gift, as far as I can tell. The band can overdo it (like all bands) and in doing so comes off as twee. I don't see them as a 60s and 70s cover band because they still sound pretty unique to me. How many lead singers sound like Murdoch? Mugshot, you raise the excellent point that we should listen to better older music than newer stuff that only rehashes it. I don't disagree with you necessarily, but this is tricky, I think, because people are naturally compelled to defer to older stuff as being better or the best. Somehow--and this with all things, not just music--older and more established is considered more authentic (probably) and of higher quality (not necessarily). So it's tougher for more contemporary bands to be assessed on their own terms because people feel obligated to judge them against their predecessors--and the predecessors usually come out on top. ("Oh, you think that new band Y is good, you should check out (X Band that broke up 20 years ago but sounds like Band Y), they're way better." We often hear this or some variation of this; it's part of any snob's arsenel.) But is all the music from yesteryear really the best? If Album B was inspired by older Album A, and they seem to you to be of comparable quality, why must Album A be considered better?

Second, a friend once told me that B&S is inspired by Donovan, and you can hear that on his greatest hits compilation, about the only Donovan work I can tolerate. Between Donovan and the Zombies (which I hear some in B&S, Mugshot, but not much), I guess there is a hint of a psychedelic pop influence. But really, I know little about these artists so I could be way off.

Third (and this goes back to some of my first comments), while I, too, appreciate bands who contribute new statements and original sounds, I find that's usually not enough to make them better than bands that sound more derivative. To put it another way, new original sounds can be junk. Like calling older stuff better just because it's older, I think one can fall into the trap of calling newer stuff better just because it's "fresh" or original-sounding. I'm an Interpol fan because they took music they're clearly inspired by (not familiar with Wire, but Joy Division is the obvious comparison here) and made it accessible, more melodic. I find Interpol's debut to be a powerful and rewarding work ("Say Hello to the Angels" one of my favorite songs of the past few years); the album should be appreciated it on its own terms. Live performances always impact my thoughts on a band, and I find Banks to be earnest and the band to not be pretentious at all (an oft-cited criticism of the band).

Just my thoughts.

At 10:32 PM, Blogger Mugshot said...

FriedOreo, those are some good points. If music's original, that doesn't make it good. And if it builds on the past, well, it's like Walter Sobchak in the Big Lebowski said about Judaism: "3,000 years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax -- you're goddam right I'm living in the fucking past!" Maybe it does have to do with the way we appreciate this stuff, if that even matters. Maybe what matters the most is that it makes you feel good, or that it challenges your mind a little. As a snob, if someone told me that Belle and Sebastian's records came out in the '60s, I guarantee you I'd have more respect for the band than knowing that they came out in the last 10 years (but since this discussion started, I've gained more and more respect for them).

Not that we've talked about standing the test of time, but in the "classical" music world, if someone today writes something in the style of a Mozart sonata, they could do a great job and maybe even equal Mozart's technique -- but no one will care after more than a few days. Am I the only one who thinks that analogy is relevant? I don't think people are going to remember Interpol the same way they may remember B/S.

Hyena: as for splitting up BS's career, I'm having trouble. Fold Your Hands seems like a reasonable spot, but I just bought Catastrophe and am too hoping it helps.

At 11:19 PM, Blogger Mugshot said...

Oh, and "She Wants Me" from Catastrophe is the same song as "Los Angeles, I'm Yours," from the Decemberists' Her Majesty. I think the Decemberists came first on taht one.

At 12:55 PM, Blogger ryunited and it feels so good said...

I'm not saying that anyone should like B&S because they are friends - thats a really frustrating interpretation of what I've written.

I AM saying that they aren't the deliberate copycats or cover band they are being made out to be here. I don't think there is much deliberate about anything they do and I think thats why people like it so much - it sounds like a bunch of friends in the studio just having fun (the difference between late eighties Tribe and any hip hop on the radio now) and its the freshness that comes from that kind of process that I like about the band and their music. Its about tone and feeling - sorta how the Libertines sound is amplified by the absolute chaos you can feel in their music.

I hate arguments based on "oh, he's just a derivate of so and so and isn't pushing boundaries" because they make music fans sound arrogant. Does a piece of music excite you? move you? make you feel a certain way?

Elliott Smith said throughout his whole career that he wanted to sound like the Kinks. Kurt Cobain really wanted to sound like the Pixies. They both kicked a lot of ass while sounding a whole lot like their influences too.

I listen to A LOT of music, and I've never heard of half the acts you are referencing here. If they are worth a listen and bands like B&S and Interpol inspire people to seek them out they are doing your bands a favor.

But unless you are clearly posers trying to capitalize on a fad (see: She Wants Revenge - who were previously a Digable Planets cover band), I don't see whats wrong about letting your influences shine through your music.

At 6:40 PM, Blogger Mugshot said...

This is a long comment, but please read it. I want to know what people think.

Having listened a lot more to B/S since this discussion started (and enjoying their entire output a lot more than I had before), I would say that this band is quite deliberate in what they're doing. And that I don't think of bands as brilliant who piggyback off past achievements and offering little that is new. And then that interpretation turns back on itself and makes me appreciate the music less. The fact that B/S often sound like a group of friends hanging out and making music is a great reason to like them, if it shines through. And as for influences shining through, I'm all for that, too. Nothing exists in a vacuum. I can even like the music a cover band capitalizing on a fad produces. I can even, as we say, be moved by it. But I'm far less likely to appreciate that group itself, and that filters back to the music. So that's why I value conscious originality on top of just making music that makes me feel good.

I think those comments by Cobain and Smith are to be taken as exaggerations -- they would be upset if they were merely considered Pixies or Kinks cover artists. They built on a style, as did B/S and Interpol (Interpol, I still think, copied more than they were inspired, which, although I enjoy the songs and their technical prowess, is partly why I don't respect that group as a group as much as I do earlier bands.) On the other hand, Chris Martin of Coldplay -- who I believe has acknowledged the fact that he idolizes Radiohead and U2 -- doesn't get the same appreciation from me as if he had written some of his admittedly catchy songs before either of those other bands came out. He isn't capitalizing on a fad, either -- he just wanted to make good music. It's music that some people say sounds like Radiohead and U2. But good music moves me less if I later find out that it's almost a carbon copy of something else. Why is that?

I completely agree that comments saying that something is no good because it is merely a derivative of something else can be quite arrogant, but let me be the first to admit arrogance here. As long as I'm not making music myself, I'm going to be arrogant about it. But I have to draw the line somewhere between groups whose music I love because I love the music AND the group, and groups whose music I like but don't really like the group because there's nothing inspired about them.

Think of a food analogy here -- cooks who throw some ingredients together to, by chance or because of some insight about food, create some amazingly tasty dish, are, somehow, different from classically trained chefs who painstakingly work out the details of their food and spend hours developing a recipe. How are they different? How process transfers into product and, in turn, how we like that product because of the process, is a problem we'll probably never solve on the Mongrel. Did any of that make sense?


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