Wrapped up in books

Tom Pilcher

Six weeks off is a long time, let’s face it. Luckily, many of our writers found some time for pleasure reading during the break. Since going outside can be so harrowing during winter term, this semi-regular series will offer thoughtful reflections on books that our staff has read recently, perfect for sheltering yourself from the cold and becoming “wrapped up in books.”
I’ve been meaning to read some books from the 33 1/3 book series for a long time now, and luckily, the Rockford Public Library had almost all of them. Written by well-regarded music critics of all generations, this unique series of short books analyzes particular musicians and albums in-depth, much like a good book of literary criticism. Think of these books like the critical essays English majors have to read, only applied to seminal albums and artists.
Perhaps fittingly, the first one I read was Scott Plagenhoef’s history of Belle and Sebastian’s 1996 breakthrough album “If You’re Feeling Sinister” – “wrapped up in books” comes from a track off their 2003 album “Dear Catastrophe Waitress.” Readers of the ubiquitous indie music site Pitchfork Media may recognize Plagenhoef’s name; his day job is as the site’s Associate Editor-in-Chief.
Don’t let Plagenhoef’s associations throw you off, however. “If You’re Feeling Sinister” should be required reading for anyone who considers themselves a fan of the Scottish pop stalwarts. Throughout the 105-page book, Plagenhoef combines early critical opinions of the band and the album, personal stories and connections and helpful historical contextualization to deepen the reader’s understanding of B&S’s unremarkable beginnings.
Now, in 2011, Belle and Sebastian hold an established, respected place in the music community, and it’s easy to take their brand of pop for granted. Countless other indie pop bands borrow from B&S’s current, orchestrated pop sound and their earlier bedroom pop aesthetic, so it’s hard to understand the impact of “If You’re Feeling Sinister” and the mysterious band behind the album when it was released. Many respected publications trashed the band early on for their under-rehearsed live performances and apparent “wimpy student” aesthetic. Plagenhoef’s research has paid off, and it’s fascinating to read these early opinions of the band.
Intertwined with the story of “the Belles,” as Plagenhoef lovingly calls the band, is the larger story of the Internet’s effect on musicians and listeners. B&S stepped onto the scene before the era of the MP3, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and the like, so it’s particularly interesting to hear Plagenhoef discuss the difficulty of even finding the band’s music. It didn’t help that the band released their first two albums on Jeepster Records, a tiny London label.
Though mysterious – the band only released silly press photos and even issued a press embargo in 1997 – B&S really benefited from the power of the Internet. Plagenhoef’s discussion of the Sinister List, an early message board for fans of the band, sheds light on an oft-overlooked portion of the band’s history. And Plagenhoef’s personal connection to the Sinister List truly makes the book. I won’t spoil it, but it’s perhaps the most fitting result for a B&S message board.
Plagenhoef also analyzes many songs from the band’s catalogue throughout the book, giving them more depth than a casual listen usually results in. In these discussions, Plagenhoef’s immense respect and love for the band comes through, and you get a sense that he was the right person to write this edition of the 33 1/3 series.
Though Plagenhoef’s phrasing sometimes becomes cumbersome, the story of the band, their music and their fans is a fascinating one worth reading, regardless. Considering the band’s place as elder statesmen in the world of indie now, this history is an extremely worthwhile read for any fan looking to learn more about the most charming band around, Belle and Sebastian.
“If You’re Feeling Sinister” isn’t the only book in the 33 1/3 series, either. The 50-plus titles range from Neutral Milk Hotel to James Brown to Stevie Wonder to the Magnetic Fields and more, so there’s almost certainly one for any music fan.