Belle and Sebastian : “The BBC Sessions

Tom Pilcher

When writing a paper, the thesis statement belongs at the end of the first paragraph, or at least somewhere near the beginning so the writer can tie the rest of the paper back to it. Scotland’s Belle & Sebastian seem to know this well, as the first track on their new-old album is called “The State I Am In,” a “thesis statement” for the rest of the album.
“The BBC Sessions” offers no new material, but rather a snapshot of the band from 1996 to 2001 presented through various recordings they made for BBC radio shows. It should also be mentioned that a limited-edition version of the record comes with a second disc recorded live at a 2001 concert in Belfast.
Though remaining within the general realm of pop music – not Top 40 pop, mind you – Belle & Sebastian have developed over their 13-year career into a tight live band, comfortable with playing anything from surf guitar songs, such as “Le Pastie de la Bourgeosie,” to modified blues progressions, such as “The Blues Are Still Blue.”
“The BBC Sessions” serves as a reminder that the band was not always this comfortable and preferred instead to play more intimate, folk-tinged bedroom pop. The earlier cuts on the record offer relatively faithful renditions of the songs from the band’s first two albums that fans love, “Tigermilk” and “If You’re Feeling Sinister,” although “Judy and the Dream of Horses” sounds weighed down by Stevie Jackson’s reverb-heavy guitar.
These earlier tracks often hint at lyrical ideas that lead singer Stuart Murdoch continues to utilize in the band’s newer material. Perhaps the most prominent is the character song, where Murdoch sings as if he is speaking to a specific character by using “you,” appearing in “Lazy Line Painter Jane” and “Like Dylan in the Movies.”
“The Stars of Track and Field” offers up typical Murdoch wit, as he condemns a popular track star for only running track so that she could “wear terry underwear and feel the city air rush past [her] body.” Though their lyrics can be sad at times, wittier songs like this one balance them out.
The album progresses chronologically, and the performances and songwriting grow as they find their feet as a live band. At the start of their career, Belle & Sebastian were known for their shaky live performances in atypical venues like libraries or bookstores – it is therefore fitting that critics have called them “bookish.”
“Sleep the Clock Around” opens the second half of the record and finds the band conveying a sense of immediacy not found in the lo-fi electronic drum-filled studio version from “The Boy With The Arab Strap.”
The group also flexes their growing strength as a live band in fan-favorite “Lazy Line Painter Jane,” which skips along for a while until a surprisingly invigorating coda that finds them sounding fuller than anywhere else on the record.
Two of guitarist Stevie Jackson’s songs also have a place on the record: “Seymour Stein,” a slower and sometimes dragging character study, and “Wrong Love,” an early version of “The Wrong Girl” from “Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant.”
As the album continues, the songs develop toward the more symphonic pop sound that 2003’s “Dear Catastrophe Waitress” highlighted.
“The BBC Sessions” ends with the unreleased song “(My Girl’s Got) Miraculous Technique,” in which Stuart Murdoch offers up a second self-referential glimpse into the album as a whole: “If I could be a song / I would be something that would snake into your room / And be with you the whole night long.”
Murdoch started the record with a statement of purpose through “The State I Am In,” and he ends it by summing up Belle & Sebastian’s entire modus operandi in a few lines of lyrics. Even though they started out playing more intimate bedroom pop and have since moved on to a fuller symphonic sound, Belle & Sebastian have certainly always been catchy.
“The BBC Sessions” serves as a great, though partial, portrait of the group from 1996-2001, and though it shows some of their early growing pains, Belle & Sebastian fans will certainly appreciate the album as a whole.