Suddenly Something Goes Click in Your Heart
237 · 12 August 99
Belle and Sebastian: Tigermilk
I bought If You're Feeling Sinister, the second Belle and Sebastian album, on a slow Tuesday for new releases in June, 1997. My record-collection database has a field for purchase dates, so I can tell you that the prize, that week, was the long-awaited American release of Kenickie's At the Club, which would end up at #4 on my 1997 top-ten list. The second album I got that day that made enough of an impression to merit writing about was Megadeth's Cryptic Writings, and I use "merit" loosely, since it interested me mainly for its unapologetic anachronism. I haven't listened to it since, and I might never listen to it again. The other four records I bought were all extremely subdued, in a year when the only subdued albums to really captivate me were two early Apartments reissues. Three of the four, frankly, were the answers to questions I ought to have known were rhetorical. Would I abruptly start liking 10,000 Maniacs now that Natalie Merchant was gone? Was all it would take to dispel my resistance to Ron Sexsmith's frail voice another forty minutes of it? In an album setting, would it be easier for me to focus on Tara McLean's pretty singing and ignore her banal lyrics than it had been in concert? This is the kind of inane investigative diligence that afflicts me when I find myself walking toward the register with only one or two discs in my hand. If You're Feeling Sinister, on the other hand, I bought entirely in deference to intriguing hype, without much idea of how I'd react. If I'd acquired it in different company, maybe I would have paid better attention, but in a stack with one electrifying punk record, one loud metal record, and three quiet albums that bored me, it was too easy to just make it four quiet albums that bored me, and move on. But that was 1997. I think I'd heard the words "Sarah Records", but they didn't mean anything to me yet. I'd never heard a single song by the Field Mice, or the Orchids, or Heavenly. If I'd called something "bedroom pop", I'd probably have meant that it sounded like Heart. Belle and Sebastian belonged to an aesthetic I was so little attuned to that the only response I could think of to If You're Feeling Sinister was "But I have four Nick Drake records already." And so as their quiet, subdued following gathered recruits, I started thinking of them, if not as Evil exactly, then as one of those bellwethers by which I recognize the difference between the kind of band I ought to like and the ones I actually do. As I pursued every other available post-Sarah lead, though, on this year's epic quest, Belle and Sebastian came up over and over, and I'm only so strong. Plus, I'd seen how much original copies of Tigermilk, their school-project debut, were going for on eBay. Pinned between a completist conscience and a collector's curiosity, I finally surrendered. If they're willing to go back to the beginning of the story, reissuing this, I will be too. Forget what I know, or what I thought I knew, about If You're Feeling Sinister, forget the few radio fragments of The Boy With the Arab Strap, which I didn't buy. Delete all judgments. The last time we met, I was younger and they were older. Things can be as different, now, as we let them. Press Play.
My heart is clear of my body within five minutes. Five minutes? Maybe two. The nominal chorus to "The State I Am In", more like a recurrent bridge, doesn't arrive until later, but by two minutes in we've reached the place where Stuart Murdoch says the title for the first time, and we're two and a half verses into a story that already has seven characters, six or seven complicated interpersonal relationships, and a priest that turns the confessions he hears into paperback novels. By two minutes in we have Murdoch's whispery voice, an acoustic guitar that seems to be reaching us through a microphone meant for something else, a shimmery electric guitar or two, some billowy organ, shuffling drums and the first few measures of gossamer harmony vocals, like the sounds of a bedroom metamorphosing into a daydreamed amphitheater. By two minutes in we have the architecture of an incarnation of bedroom pop that believes, adorably, that it's rock and roll. And two minutes is enough to read the clipped biography of Sebastian and his new friend Isabelle, the half-imaginary authors of these songs, on the back of the booklet, which is as succinct an evocation of the shyly idealistic spirit of Sarah Records as many of Matt and Clare's insert polemics. If Marilyn Manson offers introverts a glittery escape, and Korn tries to simply drown out their internal monologues, Belle and Sebastian present the more thoughtful ones with the possibility that melancholia and uncertainty aren't states you need to escape. They could easily be the Field Mice reincarnated, frankly, which seems like a fine idea to me. They are the Smiths, without greasepaint cynicism or camp, or they're a less sardonic Beautiful South, or they're a Prefab Sprout that never met Thomas Dolby and never loved soul. They are the kids Elliott Smith and Alanis Morissette grow up to be if they're born into a different class, on a different island. They write songs as a combination of emotional self-defense and procrastination, even if, and perhaps especially when, they're not sure what they're defending against, or putting off.
And as any first album in this genre must, to be believable, Tigermilk stumbles at times, but evolution understands that sentimental animals will be more inclined to nurture their young if they aren't born tap dancing. Maybe a part of the reason If You're Feeling Sinister eluded me is that I wanted to feel like it needed my apologies, my cooperation, like it wasn't quite complete without my complicity in its compromises. "Expectations" pushes syncopated acoustic guitar, as if it wants to be folk rock, and shiny horns like the Scots don't understand that there are more than miles between Baton Rouge and Veracruz, but the lyrics are pure high-school outcast consolation. "She's Losing It" could be vintage girl-group strut, except the fluttery chorus is about imminent nervous collapse. The twangy, galloping "You're Just a Baby" sounds like an earnest Three Dog Night/CCR/Animals homage performed in plaid school uniforms. "Electronic Renaissance", a mid-album intermission that will sound wildly out of character if you want this to be If You're Feeling Sinister's rough draft, but makes perfect sense if you're expecting Belle and Sebastian to be as distractible as the Field Mice, is an uncanny synth-pop pastiche somewhere between The The and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. "I Could Be Dreaming" undercuts resonant Leslie-spun guitar with reedy mini-synth hooks Wolfie might envy. "We Rule the School", despite the rebel-anthem title, is staid, baroque chamber-pop. "You know the world is made for men, / Not us", Stuart sighs, a distinction I take to be less about machismo and gender than species, a crackly lunar "One small step for a man" muddled by Armstrong's horror that everyone is seeing pictures of him in such awful shoes. "My Wandering Days Are Over", a recap of the frame tale, is half The Byrds, half Bacharach. "I Don't Love Anyone", which conceals a few tellingly affectionate insights amidst its denials, sounds to me like the Connells transplanted to Manchester. And "Mary Jo", after a flute and piano intro, turns into a jangly, generous epilogue, Murdoch's looping melody circling Isobel Campbell's simple harmony like a pair-skating routine in which the woman just sits in a chair reading Gaudy Night. I'm ready to move forward, now. Belatedly, as is the case with sad frequency, I'm ready to accept the cult this economical record inspired as my people. Belle and Sebastian may be archivists, more than explorers, but the historiography they're keeping alive is the catalog of ways in which scholars are heroes. We are surrounded by wannabe music, themes for suburban white kids to dress up as ghetto street thugs, vandals to think of themselves as activists, or boys whose voices haven't changed to be poster gods. Immersed in the seductive illusion that daily life should feel like sports highlights, who will still remember what purpose libraries used to serve before one well-intentioned idiot paid for them to buy computers, and some other ones invented GeoCities and Hotmail? Belle and Sebastian write songs for abandoned utopias, or the acuity to recognize a treadmill no matter who calls it a race, or the presence of mind to stop and ask if a lost soul is just lonely, or is you.
Marine Research: Sounds From the Gulf Stream
The noble labor of sustaining Sarah Records' legacy is complicated by the fact that many of the people who created the legacy are still around, themselves. I don't know what's become of Clare, but Matt has Shinkansen, his new label, and Blueboy is still putting out records on it, as are Trembling Blue Stars, who are more or less the Field Mice, and Harvey Williams, who was the Hitchcock cameo of Sarah artists. I think Boyracer are nominally defunct, but the same people are making music as Steward and Empress. The Harvest Ministers and St. Christopher found new labels, a new East River Pipe album came out this very week, and every pop band in Australia seems to have at least one former Sugarglider. And Heavenly, of course, made their last record, my favorite of theirs, after Sarah, and four fifths of them are now Marine Research. The last fifth was their drummer, and countless bands have changed drummers or more without giving up on continuity, but Heavenly wasn't a franchise, and Mathew Fletcher didn't quit to tour with Procol Harum, he quit to be dead. The rest of what could still have been Heavenly decided that Mathew's suicide was also the band's, which is their right, and a touching gesture of solidarity, I think, refreshing (if anything pertaining to a suicide can be refreshing) as a contrast to the dubious but customary "He would have wanted us to carry on". Marine Research are a new band, however much the members' biographies overlap. At least, that's the theory. The band themselves give every indication of believing it; Marine Research don't play Heavenly songs in concert, and do not bring up the connection in their own promotional material. But while I'm sure someday there will be Marine Research fans who don't know Heavenly, or know them only in retrospect, for the moment the fiction is incomplete. Scanning the room at the band's recent Cambridge show, I saw a sea of faces concentrating furiously on pronouncing "Heavenly" with "m"s and "n"s and "r"s. It hasn't helped that until very recently the only transportable mementos of Marine Research's independent existence were a two-song single charitably characterizable as inconclusive, and a Built to Spill cover on another split. But a three-song CD-single for "Parallel Horizontal" is now available, and Sounds From the Gulf Stream was on sale at the show and will be in stores the week after next. Standing there waiting for Marine Research to play, holding the copy of the album I'd just bought but not yet heard, I was about as anxious as I can ever remember being at a concert I was attending of my own volition. Having developed the conviction that Heavenly was one of the decade's Important Things, I wanted desperately to support its authors in their new endeavor, but I had no clear idea of how difficult that would be. If the "Queen B"/"Y.Y.U.B." single had been by some other random band, I wouldn't have given them a second thought. I needed to hear something inspiring, and I needed to go home and hear it again on the album. As they climbed onto the stage and settled into position, I could hear Schrödinger's Cat purring on my shoulder. Inside both boxes, the stage and the album, were pop songs, hovering in a wave-state between adored by me and not, and I was about to collapse it. And then they played, and everything turned out to be far simpler than I'd feared. These definitely aren't Heavenly songs, and if you're prepared to understand the difference as a function of trauma, you'll have little trouble, but it took absolutely no abstraction for me to become transfixed.
The show began, or at least begins in my revisionist memory of it, the same way as the album, with "Parallel Horizontal". Amelia Fletcher sings like an economist. I realize this isn't the simile to which rock singers have traditionally aspired, but I empathize with economists much more intimately than I do with coyotes, for example, and I think it's a grounding assumption of this sort of pop that I will. Most of Heavenly's brash bubblegum-punk sparkle is gone, but in its place is a sturdy, self-contained rock song, propelled by DJ's square drumming, with Amelia's precise lead, Cathy Rogers' oddly somber nonsense-syllable harmonies, and guitarist Peter Momtchiloff leaning, Buzzcocks-style, into the choruses. The words "parallel horizontal" resist the melody, but that's sort of the point of the song, a couple's postures in bed reduced to symbolic and uncooperative geometry. "A long gone love never threatening, / Or I would be letting him / Tug T-shirt and lift", Amelia muses, even her imagined seduction narrated in unappealing assembly-instruction clarity. Still, "Parallel Horizontal" has a relationship to fret over; it fades into theory for the methodical 3/4 observer's lament "You and a Girl", whose ascending-scale verse lines sound to me like a sense-inverted "These Are a Few of My Favorite Things". The narrator never finds a way out of her tragedy, and the song never quite locates itself, either, it seems to me. Much as with Kenickie, my personal experience is that Heavenly and Marine Research songs, whatever styles they span, basically all rely on performance energy, and when they try to write a song without it, they do so by instrument, forced to calculate what could replace energy, because their intuitions are unresponsive. If you made sheet music for "You and a Girl", it would look like a song. I can hum it from memory. But it's just data.
But then comes "Hopefulness to Hopelessness", and I no longer care much if the rest of the record has the rhythmic grace of stenography. Cathy sets up another wordless loop, which isn't quite as surreal to hear coming off the disc as I found it to be radiating from center stage without a trace of self-consciousness. Amelia's verses go at half that speed, and the tension between the two tempos is as close as Marine Research gets to replicating a specific Heavenly trick. The rest of the band, when they join in, initially take up Amelia's pace, but gradually Cathy switches from counterpoint to harmony, and just when I notice that nobody is holding up the eighth-note layer, the whole band snaps into double-time. The chorus is cathartic and soaring, a artlessly straightforward plea for courage. "I still want to hear you end / Your half-finished pop songs. / I still want to be who I am, / But be it with you", runs one of the verses, and my guess is that the ambiguity is intentional: it could be a love song, but it could also be for Mathew, in which case "I still want to be who I am" hints at an alarmingly lucid understanding that simply restoring history to its previous state, no suicide and no awareness of its possibility, would accomplish nothing. In isolation, all beginning and end states are equivalent; personal growth only comes from understanding what your role is in converting one to the other.
The muted "Queen B", next, isn't dramatically more thrilling in context than it was on the single, but as an album transition it doesn't have to be. "Chucking Out Time", the song that follows, is twinkly and confident, but displays no unique Marine Research qualities that I can hear, the jazz-pop mannerisms towards the end particularly (and mysteriously) anonymous. The song that puzzled me most in concert, "Glamour Gap", is eerie and enticing on disc, built on a guitar riff that sounds like the Pixies doing spaghetti-western, a tangle of distorted dialogue samples and another breathy duet between Amelia and Cathy, but the source of my confusion was watching the two women perform it. It's a rather bitter song about not being conventionally beautiful, and not being willing to fake beauty artificially. All Marine Research songs are sung as if they're from Amelia's point of view (as were Heavenly songs, which produced some odd results when they were Mathew's lyrics), and in this case, at least the night I saw them, Amelia played the narrator's role perfectly, with a short, boyish haircut and attention-deflecting clothes. Cathy Rogers, however, is gorgeous in socially established ways, strikingly blonde, fit, and dressed for this show in a tight, stomach-exposing T-shirt. She didn't look made-up, and when I saw her, later, out from behind her keyboard in weird knee socks, I realized that her complete outfit wasn't that much more glamorous than Amelia's, so the song didn't seem to be wholly directed at her, but I couldn't help feel that she had been coerced into participating in a diatribe for which she was also part of the audience.
"At the Lost and Found", jittery and frayed, is the closest the record comes to punk, the choruses reminding me very much of Lush. "Venn Diagram"'s brittle rhythm and spindly guitar sound like a cross between Prince and the Wedding Present. "End of the Affair" attempts an odd Latin squirm, complete with castanets. And "Y.Y.U.B.", the single's b-side pressed into service as the record's final track, feints towards a big, surging finale, but then decides against it, and instead of making an explosive exit, the album simply creaks to a halt. By Heavenly's standards, ten songs in thirty-six minutes constitutes a weighty collection; The Decline and Fall of Heavenly supplies only eight in twenty-five. But The Decline and Fall... feels to me like the band set out to make an normal-size album, and only realized at the end that eight of their quick, compact songs don't quite add up to Permanent Waves. Sounds From the Gulf Stream seems less comfortable with itself, like writing for Marine Research is still difficult for them, perhaps like writing songs at all is still somewhat painful. I think if I were editing, I would have told them they weren't ready for an album yet. Getting five good songs out of ten tries is a very respectable ratio, and if it took six more to get to eight, that's only a matter of months until they'd have a record that could make people forget Heavenly. Then again, I don't want to forget Heavenly, and despite their bluff, I don't believe that Marine Research do, either. This album is inevitably about recovery, and if you want to demonstrate any of recovery's lessons, you have to show the intermediate steps. Holding out for another perfect pop record would have amounted to pretending that Mathew's death didn't change their goals. The five songs I don't care as much for, and we'll pretend for a moment that my reactions are indicative, are actually the courageous ones, the songs in which Mathew's friends try to work out the new implications of life without him, try to decide on methods of living that are based on their love for him, try to sustain all his essential qualities, including, because an honest tribute must, his resignation.