Announcing no.50: Belle & Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister

We reach the half-century point with Scott Plagenhoef’s intriguing history of a time that already seems such a long, long way away – mid-90s Britain, and the gentle emergence of Belle & Sebastian on to the pumped up Britpop scene.

Here’s an extract from the book:


Like Tigermilk, Sinister was a well-plotted record, created in quick succession over eight days in the studio with little fuss or discussion, just Murdoch’s desires articulated and fulfilled. With Murdoch perhaps living out too literally his desire to have “the trumpet…be as important as the guitar, the cello…as important as the piano,” he seems to have forgotten the guitar altogether. The record was improbably ambitious for an indie pop group at the time, and in retrospect having almost complete novices record a sophisticated chamber pop record on a shoestring budget was perhaps not giving these songs the framework they deserved. As Nicky Wire had observed of C86, “It wasn’t a political thing. It was a poor thing.” And in her 1997 Puncture piece, Jenny Toomey also noted that the Belles’ “recurrent themes of aspiration, enthusiasm, and quiet persistence in economically depressed, disenfranchised, isolated Scotland might well be the 90s equivalent to punk rock.”

This was part of Murdoch’s early, stated desire to “draw in my audience, instead of bombasting them,” as he wrote to Jeepster in a letter (reprinted in Just a Modern Rock Story) outlining his hopes for Tigermilk. “No regular rock venue is set up to deal with the subtlety of singing. Volumes are laughably loud…But in the intimacy of someone’s bedroom, when they’ve just got the record home, there is no scope for any bullshit. To absolutely absorb somebody as they listen to the LP through on their mono Dansette is what I really want. Who wouldn’t?”

This sadly antiquated dream could, in 1996, almost only come from an indie pop kid, someone raised on the joy of the 45, on sitting through music one song at a time and being forced to swap a record out in order to hear another one. That’s a bit old-fashioned now, and it’s a shame, as music has seemed to slip all too easily into the background of many kids’ lives.

In the iPod era, we perhaps spend more time hearing music than at any time before but less time listening to it – it’s almost always relegated to background/ambient noise, and typically something we do in isolation. Instead, music is increasingly a lifestyle accoutrement, a soundtrack to the other foregrounded things you’re doing in your life rather than a central activity. (Among those other things are playing video games or watching DVDs, both arguably now more popular youth cult entertainment choices, and both of which inherently cannot be engaged with as a background activity.) The act of sitting and listening to a record and doing nothing else is sadly antiquated. The idea of doing that with someone else, and talking about music, is possibly even more rare. It seems rare that someone immerses himself in music – let alone allows himself to be drawn in by it, as Murdoch had hoped. Perhaps not surprisingly then, indie rock trends in the early iPod era have favored bombastic, platitude-shouting groups such as the Arcade Fire rather than more delicate, private obsessions.

The mp3 revolution – for all the good it’s done as a flexible, democratizing means of hearing, sharing, and storing music – is almost inherently a “backgrounded” means of collecting sounds. Removing the need to own a tangible product in order to acquire music, the mp3 gives listeners no album art, no liner notes, no photos – nothing but the music itself. All investigation of a group, should one become curious, is left online, a process that opens up every lock and secret at once and encourages fans rather than artists to fill in those blanks, whether on blogs, reviews, comments boxes, or wikipedia. Like the Sinister List was forced to do, listeners now quite often tell a musician’s narrative.


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