Belle & Sebastian - The Boy With The Arab Strap
You may recall the furore a few years back when Belle & Sebastian 'stole' the Brits ‘Best Newcomer’ award from Steps. This was strange on a couple of accounts. Firstly, the album that had brought them to attention was actually their third. Secondly, and contrary to the belief of the types of people who watch these ceremonies, The Boy With The Arab Strap wasn’t strange or deliberately obscure, but rather full of very fine pop songs. That these previously escaped attention said far more about radio/TV scheduling and the ignorance of the general public than it did the band themselves.
Take Ease Your Feet In The Sea. It’s one of a handful of tracks here which sparkle and shimmer. The delicate vocals (a duty shared by three band members) and every stroke of acoustic guitar are clear in the simple production. On a casual listen, these may seem as gorgeous an evocation of rural summer as you’ll hear, the sort of summer you might believe only your grandparents could have had. The lyrics, however, are usually at least vaguely melancholy, if only just communicating a sense of boredom, loneliness or time wasted.
Other stand-out track, Dirty Dream Number Two, is white-boy soul and employs a string section and brass, belying the album’s probable low budget. It also contains the fascinating lyric, “Things creep up on you when you are fast asleep/ You are dreaming, you are sleepy/ You are stuck to the sheets”. The album’s infectious title track ends on a similarly wry put down.
The band betray their Scottish origin with the inclusion of bagpipes on Sleep the Clock Around, and A Space Boy Dream is spoken words over a backing track which veers towards jazz. However, this band are more interested in writing a good tune than experimenting. Only three tracks (Seymour Stein, Chickfactor and The Rollercoaster Ride) verge on dull.
The Boy With the Arab Strap marked a point in the band’s career where they had obvious potential to reach a wider audience, but before their act began to wear thin. Refreshingly uncynical, it proves pop music needn’t be a product sung by five muppets and aimed at twelve year olds.