Emerging from the Glasgow indie-pop scene, the Scottish band Belle and Sebastian has developed a growing and fervent international following for its gently idiosyncratic music. Tigermilk, Belle and Sebastian’s just re-released first album, shows them at their start.
The album’s opening track, "The State I Am In"—with its catchy, beautiful arrangement and quirky, intelligent lyrics—is in many ways emblematic of the band’s entire body of work. Lead vocalist Stuart Murdoch solemnly sings the first verse over quiet acoustic guitar strums, before the song gathers speed and layers. Chiming electric guitar chords, swells of Hammond organ, and bits of harmony carry the listener along as Murdoch spins out an odd and yearning confessional: "I gave myself to God, there was a pregnant pause before he said okay."
Tigermilk contains several such left field pop tunes. Often boppy, sometimes sweet, it is saved from being cloying by the dry wit of the lyrics and the intriguing textures created by not just guitars, drums, and keyboards, but also cello, trumpet, and flute. It’s a fine album that’s gone largely unheard. Only 1,000 copies of Tigermilk, all on vinyl, were pressed in 1996, when it was first released as a project of a music business course at Glasgow’s Stow College. (To my eternal gratitude, two years ago a friend in Scotland introduced me to Belle and Sebastian with a copy of Tigermilk taped off a friend’s original. Such informal sharing, as well as for-profit bootlegging, finally spurred this summer’s re-release.)
Since recording Tigermilk, Belle and Sebastian has solidified its eight-person line-up and released two additional albums (If You’re Feeling Sinister and The Boy With the Arab Strap) and four EPs (the latter are only available as imports in the United States). Stuart Murdoch is the main songwriter, although Stevie Jackson, Isobel Campbell, and Stuart David contributed songs to the last album and some of the singles, and several of the band members have separate recording projects of their own or play in other groups.
The tunes on Tigermilk are deeply informed by musical forebears that range from the Velvet Underground to ‘60s soul artists, with a touch of art rock, folk, and Donovan. But the songs are not mere exercises in nostalgia. At first hearing, the music is both oddly familiar and quite unique. The indie-pop philosophy eschews over-production and polish, so between that and the fact that it was recorded in three days, the overall tone of the album is refreshingly immediate. Although the pitch of the vocals is occasionally "approximate," the members of Belle and Sebastian do in fact know how to play their instruments (and often two or three others) very well, thank you.
Whether describing the tortured days of a high-school misfit or the romantic longings of a middle-aged woman alone with her television and fantasies of the men she "left for intrigue," Murdoch expresses an underlying compassion for the lonely and left out that tempers a typically Scottish sardonic edge. The reverse is also true, resulting in lyrics and music that are ironic without being cynical, flippant without being nasty, sincere without being over-earnest or patronizing. So lines like "A family’s like a loaded gun/You point it in the wrong direction someone’s going to get killed" exist on the same album with a bouncy song about an underage crush, and it all works.
Tigermilk is not "Christian" music. But the occasional lines like "Do something pretty while you canà reading the Gospel to yourself is fine" are a bonus to those of us who try to follow Jesus but don’t care for most officially Christian pop music. In songs like "The State I Am In," Murdoch sings as eloquently about spiritual longing as he does about the physical versions. Perhaps this comes from his personal experience of faith or doubt, or maybe he is just observant during his day job as caretaker (and choir member) of a Glasgow church. No matter; like a good short story, or the right psalm at a hard time, some songs on Tigermilk give me glimpses of another’s life in a way that help me understand or survive my own. They also amuse me. Both are gifts I count as holy.
JULIE POLTER is associate editor of Sojourners.
Tigermilk. Belle and Sebastian. Matador, 1999.