Thursday, May 14, 2009
16. The Boy with the Arab Strap - Belle and Sebastian, 1998 (Best of the 90s)
The Boy With the Arab Strap
Belle and Sebastian
A friend and I had slipped out to the campus bar one night. He was struggling with a break-up that just wouldn’t break and I hardly needed a reason. With his frustrations finally vented and our mood now elated, the pint glasses were free and clear to empty in record times. We laughed over nonsense and acted like jackasses, all the while knowing that we hadn’t solved any problem at all, when I recognized that I had fully enjoyed the last four or five songs played over the pub speakers. The vocals were inaudible and the bass too heavy, but it was clear that this was the work of a band I hadn’t heard, not the scatter-shot mixed tape they usually tossed on. I asked the bartender when grabbing the next round, and years later as I listen to Stuart Murdoch’s witty melancholy, I realize my friend and I could’ve learned a lot about heartbreak by shutting up and listening to The Boy With the Arab Strap.
Although it was the title track, with its hand-clap momentum pushing a rollicking organ hook, that first caught my attention, playing ‘Seymour Stein’ and ‘Chickfactor’ at a university bar is ingenious; what could be more therapeutic for rejected twenty-somethings than Belle & Sebastian with booze? As my first B&S experience, I still consider this the best of their catalogue, but for long-time fans who followed the group from their mid-90s beginnings, it couldn’t live up to the indie-smash of 1998’s If You’re Feeling Sinister. With that sophomore effort immediately considered “a classic” and band-leader Murdoch being hailed as a lyrical visionary, Boy with the Arab Strap finds the seven-piece band inching forward despite the pressure, refining their songcraft but keeping the twee that fans cherished so dearly. Murdoch shakes some of the weight from his shoulders by sharing songwriting duties, a risky decision that pays off (especially on the summer-kissed ‘Is It Wicked Not to Care?’) and preserves the fresh air of this collection.
By the time I had my copy of Boy With the Arab Strap, the last of winter snow had drained into gutters and cool rain tapped my headphones as ‘The Rollercoaster Ride’ cooed in my ears. Like those early Spring days we celebrate by purposefully under-dressing, Belle & Sebastian have made an album equally as revitalizing; one that raises your spirits from within the guise of gloom they wear with a wink.