The group that I am about to write about, recorded their first single in 1996, whilst at college, and went on to record their debut album in three days. Since then, they recorded a further eight albums and have achieved almost cult status, amongst their large and loyal fan-base. This band is yet another successful group that hails from Scotland, and they are Belle and Sebastian, and the album is The Boy With The Arab Strap. 

Belle and Sebastian were formed in 1996, at Stow College, in Glasgow. The band was formed by two students, Stuart Murdoch and Stuart David, and was named after Cecile Aubry’s 1965 book Belle et Sebastien. Since then, many members have joined and left the group, one of the most influential being, Isobel Campbell, who joined in 1996 and left the group in 2002, singing vocals and playing cello. Other members include Stuart David, Chris Geddes and Sarah Martin.

Whilst at college, in 1996, Belle and Sebastian recorded some demo tracks with the college’s music professor Alan Rankin. In case you are thinking Alan Rankin, I know that name, I will put you out of your misery. Rankin played keyboards and guitars in The Associates alongside the late Billy Mackenzie. The Associates released three albums, The Affectionate Punch  in 1980, Fourth Drawer Down in 1981 and Sulk in 1982. He also released four solo albums in the 1980s. 

Getting back to Belle and Sebastian, the demos came to the notice of the college’s business studies department, who each year, released a single on the college’s record label. Belle and Sebastian, by then, had recorded a number of songs, enough to fill an album. Having been so impressed by Belle and Sebastian’s music, that year, the label decided to release an album, called Tigermilk. The album was recorded in three days, and one-thousand copies vinyl were pressed. Tigermilk was well received and the album sold out quickly. This lead to Murdoch and David deciding to become a full-time band, and further members joining the band. Isobel Campbell joined on vocals and cello, Stevie Jackson guitar and vocals, Richard Coburn on drums and Chris Geddes on keyboards.

After Tigermilk’s success, the group signed to Jeepster Records in August 1996, they released their second album If You’re Feeling Sinister in November 1996. Many people believe that this is their finest album. American magazine Spin, liked the album so much, that they put it at number seventy-six in their top one-hundred albums released between 1985-2005. Rolling Stone magazine put the album in its list of essential albums of the 1990s.

After the release of If You’re Feeling Sinister, the group released series of EPs during 1997. The EPs were Dog On Wheels, Lazy Line Painter Jane and 3.. 6.. 9 Seconds of Light. Dog On Wheels was actually four songs that were recorded prior to the group’s formation. It reached number fifty-nine in the UK charts. Lazy Line Painter reached number forty-one in the UK charts, and 3.. 6.. 9 Seconds of Light became the group’s first top forty single, reaching number thirty-two in the UK charts.

The album that this article is about, The Boy With The Arab Strap was released in September 1998, and reached number twelve in the UK charts. Unlike previous Belle and Sebastian albums, Stuart Murdoch does not sing the vocal on all of he tracks. On The Boy With The Arab Strap, Isobel Campbell, Stevie Jackson and Stuart David, sing vocals. The album received mixed views from the music press. Long time supporter of Belle and Sebastian Rolling Stone magazine, and The Village Voice praised the album, others were not as impressed. However, since its release, many people believe he Boy With The Arab Strap, and not If You’re Feeling Sinister, is the band’s best album.

The name of the album caused a minor controversy within the Scottish music scene. There was a band called Arab Strap who consisted of Aiden Moffat and Malcolm Middleton, and they recorded and performed between 1995-2006. Moffat was none to pleased that the name of his band featured in the title of Belle and Sebastian’s new album. This lead to a minor war of words between two of the Scottish music scene’s then, leading bands. 

In 1999 Belle and Sebastian, won the award for Best Newcomer at the Brit Awards. This was a strange decision, because by then, the group had released three awards. Tigermilk was also rereleased on Jeepster Records, making the album available to a much wider audience.

Belle and Sebastian released their fourth album Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant. The album gave the group their first top ten album. They also released a single Legal Man, which was not on the new album. It reached number fifteen in the UK singles charts. This lead to Belle and Sebastian appearing on Top of the Pops.

The follow up to Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk was released in 2000. It was entitled Storytelling. Storytelling was the score to the Todd Solondz film Storytelling. Belle and Sebastian had problems getting in touch with Solondz, and in the end, the film Storytelling only contained six minutes of the group’s music. The album was not well received by the group’s fans, and was  a major disappointment.

Two major events occurred in 2002 that would affect Belle and Sebastian . Firstly, the band left Jeepster Records and joined Rough Trade Records. Secondly, Isobel Campbell left the band. Campbell had been a huge part of the group’s success, and many people, including myself, wondered where Belle and Sebastian went from there.

The following year, 2003, they released a new album Dear Catastrophe Waitress. This album was produced by Trevor Horn, and was a change in sound. Belle and Sebastian had made an album of much more radio friendly music. The other change was in the production of the album. Horn had produced a much more polished sound, although some people believe that album was “over-produced”. Dear Catastrophe Waitress, was well received, and Belle and Sebastian regained their credibility as an indie group. Later that year, Belle and Sebastian would achieve a first. Step Into My Office Baby, was the first time the group had released a track from an album as a single. 

In 2005 Belle and Sebastian released Push Barman To Open Old Wounds. This was a compilation of their singles and EPs on the Jeepster label. The following year saw the release of The Life Pursuit. It reached number eight in the UK charts. It also reached number eighty-five in the Billboard 200, their first album to chart in the US. Two singles were released from the album, Funny Little Frog and The Blues Are Still Blue. Both singles charted, the former reaching the top twenty, and the latter just entering the top forty.

2010 saw Belle and Sebastian release their latest album, Belle and Sebastian Write About Love. The album was released in October 2010 and saw the band collaborate again with Tony Hoffer, who produced 2006’s The Life Pursuit. Write About Love was the lead single from the album.

Now that you know more about Belle and Sebastian’s history, I will now tell you what makes The Boy With The Arab Strap such a good album. The first track on the album is It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career. This is a really great way to start the album. It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career features some really thoughtful and sad lyrics, which have a really strong narrative. The song is well sung, and when you hear the vocal, you instantly think of Nick Drake as an influence. On the track is a good arrangement, that highlights the vocal.

Sleep Around the Clock sounds totally different from It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career. The tempo is quicker, and sounds totally different from the opening track. What it has in common is the lyrics. Here the lyrics are strong, intelligent and tell a story. My one quibble with the track is that the instruments, at times, overpower the vocal. One is left straining to hear the lyrics, over the instruments. That, to me, is a shame, as this a great song, with fantastic lyrics. However, I still think this is a good song, albeit, one where the production could have improved the song, by making the vocal stronger, or more prominent in the mix.

Isobel Campbell sings the lead vocal on Is It Wicked Not To Care? She sings this song beautifully, and has just the right voice to carry the song off. Campbell has a fantastic voice, as she would later prove in her collaborations with Mark Lanegan. Here, she almost whispers the vocal, and is effectively accompanied by an acoustic guitar, and some glorious backing vocals. This track has a very retro sound, almost 1960s French feel to it. Is It Wicked Not To Care? has always been, and will always be, one of my favorite Belle and Sebastian tracks.

Ease Your Feet Into the Sea, is another of album’s best songs. The arrangement is perfect for the song. Stuart Murdoch gives one of his best performances on this track. His vocal, highlights the beauty of the song. Behind Murdoch, the band play beautifully, all the instruments come together beautifully. The use of purely acoustic instruments is highly effective, and Ease Your Feet Into the Sea, is a classic Belle and Sebastian track.

 A Summer Wasting sees a change in style and tempo. The song starts slowly, and then the song quickens. When the drums enter the song, they play a  strange beat. This makes you focus on the song. When you do, you hear lyrics about a student spending the summer relaxing, no work to do, books to read, just spending time not doing anything much, just watching time passing them by. This song is one any former student will be able to relate to. Although this is a just a short song, it is two minutes of lovely lyrics and music.

Seymour Stein sees Stevie Jackson take the lead vocal on this song. Immediately, the start of the song makes me think of a Nick Drake track. The chords and style are similar to those Drake used to such great effect. Here, Jackson has good voice, it is a nice change to Murdoch’s vocal. What I have always liked about Belle and Sebastian, is their intelligent lyrics. For example, the track is about Seymour Sten, a record industry mogul, who is one of the most influential players in the music industry. Towards the end of the song if you pay close attention to the lyrics, they say “he reminded you of Johnny, before he went Electronic”. This is Johnny Marr, formerly of The Smiths and later member of Electronic. Seymour Stein is another good track, with great lyrics and a strong narrative.

The next song A Space Boy Dream, features a spoken word performance from Stuart David. For me, this does not work, and the track does not fit on the album. I know that the band always wanted to push the boundaries, but this spoils the flow of the album. The music that plays behind David’s vocal features some nice rhythms and I think the track would have worked better as an instrumental. A Space Boy Dream is the first disappointing track on the album.

Dirty Dream Number Two sees Murdoch retake the lead vocals. This track sees a return to their previous high standards. When you listen to the track carefully, there is a Northern Soul influence to the track. Take away the vocal, and what you have is almost a Norther Soul soul track. You could be transported back to Wigan Casino in an instant. This is a great track, one of the albums best.

The title track The Boy With The Arab Strap, sees once again, the style and tempo change. On the track, the vocal is accompanied by handclaps, a piano and drums. They all play a prominent role in sound, later a hammond organ enters the fray, and what sounds like a recorder. All of this melee of instruments and sounds, somehow, join together to produce a great track. The lyrics to the song  are intelligent and witty. They tell a story about jailbirds, errant lovers and the seedy underbelly of city life. The Boy With The Arab Strap, is another mini-masterpiece from Belle and Sebastian.

Stevie Jackson returns to take the vocal lead on Chickfactor. The lyrics tell a tale about a young man going to New York and meeting a girl he falls in love with. They then enter into a long distance relationship, and the song tells about his insecurities when he can’t contact his estranged love. Reading the lyrics, they tell a story well, so well, you can almost imagine the scenes, but a couple of lines have an almost Lewis Carroll feel to them. For example, “something’s gone wrong, said the spider to the fly”. When I listen to the lyrics, I see parallels with the literate quality of the lyrics, on Lloyd Cole and Commotions albums, especially Rattlesnakes. Quite simply, another stunning track.

Simple Things is a short track. However, what it lacks in length, it makes up in quality. The lyrics feature an enigmatic young man, singing to the young lady of his dreams. In the track, he tells her how he feels, and what she has to do to to win his affections. Although the song only contains four verses, it tells a story, and allows the listener to picture the scene clearly.

The final song on The Boy With The Arab Strap, is The Rollercoaster Ride. While Simple Thing was a short track, this is, by far, the longest song on the album. Murdoch’s vocal is made for this song. He sings the song slowly, and is accompanied on backing vocals by Isobel Campbell. Their voices blend together beautifully. The remainder of the band play quietly in the background, their performance tailor-made to bring out the beauty of the lyrics. They never overpower the vocal, yet do not give a subdued performance. The guitars and drums provide a simple, yet effective backdrop, for Murdoch and Campbell’s voices. Belle and Sebastian have chosen a great track to close the album with, as the song almost winds down, slowly, gently, bringing the album to a glorious conclusion.

The Boy With The Arab Strap has only twelve songs on the album, and it lasts a mere forty five minutes. However, for those forty-five minutes your eyes and brain is  given an aural treat. Throughout the twelve tracks you will experience a multitude of emotions, from joy to sadness. You will find yourself laughing and crying, sometimes within the space of a couple of minutes. Belle and Sebastian are wordsmiths of the highest standard. Their lyrics can paint a picture, or tell a story. On this album, they do this wonderfully. If you have never heard this album, or heard Belle and Sebastian’s music, this album is a must have for any record collection. They are one of Scotland’s and the music industry’s best kept secrets. Once you become a fan, you enter a love affair with their music. However, this is love affair where you will not be cheated on, or will not break. Put simply, once you have found and experienced their music, you will never stray, never regret the meeting, and enjoy the new found relationship with some beautiful, thoughtful and intelligent music. Standout Tracks: It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career, Is It Wicked Not To Care?, Ease Your Feet Into the Sea and The Rollercoaster Ride. 



1 Comment

  1. Such a fantastic and well written review – here is a copy of my selection of lounge around suggested songs:

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