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Belle and Sebastian: Tigermilk

Re-release of a great debut

By Fred Choi

One can only speculate how much sleep indie pop fans lost in anticipation of Belle and Sebastian’s long-awaited re-release of Tigermilk. Originally only 1000 copies on vinyl were released, and thus, it became an extremely rare collector’s item, selling at around $400. The band sought to stop the sales of bootlegs of bootlegs of the album with this reissue. The story behind the now-popular band’s first release is simply incredible. It was recorded in a mere five days in 1996 to fulfill a requirement for a Music Business and Administration Degree from Glasgow’s Stow College. Its songs were written by Stuart Murdoch and played by a band formed in an all-night cafe. The rest, as they say, was history. Well, not quite. Tigermilk, in its second release, has reached an amazing number 13 in the official UK album charts, a noteworthy accomplishment from a small Scottish band.

Viewing Tigermilk in comparison to the band’s other releases If You’re Feeling Sinister (originally released in November, 1996) and The Boy With The Arab Strap (originally released in September, 1998) provides fascinating insight into the band’s style. The album showcases Belle and Sebastian’s formidable abilities, although there are some rough patches that reflect their immaturity as a band. For example, many of the songs lack the later-album quality of intonation in solo and harmonic parts, and the vocal harmonies also have a tendency to get out of sync. There is also the inclusion of the seemingly anomalous track, “Electronic Renaissance,” which features an uncharacteristic instrumentation and style, sounding more like Brit pop than indie pop, though the lyrics and melody are 100 percent Belle and Sebastian.

Although it is immediately clear that this album is early Belle and Sebastian, all of the characteristics of their two later LPs are apparent: winsome vocals, catchy nostalgic melodies and rhythms, and poetic and oftentimes dark lyrics that thankfully never sink to the point of teenage angst, but instead uplift the listener. There are, as we have come to expect from the band, wonderfully understated, poignant lyrics (such as “I gave myself to God; there was a pregnant pause before he said Ok” from the opening song “The State I Am In”) to complement the more tongue-in-cheek lines, both combining to bring the point of each song straight home.

The songs’ themes favor loneliness and alienation, but all are told in a stirring, sympathetic way. The lyrics are supported wonderfully by the wide range of colors in the band’s musical palette, including finger snaps on “She’s Loosing It,” handclaps and organ on “You’re Just a Baby,” and a variety of strings, brass, guitars, keyboards, and percussion everywhere.

There are many highlights among the ten tracks, such as the la la la’s on “I could be Dreaming,” which also includes Isobel Campbell reading a passage from “Rip Van Winkle.” The hazy coda to “My Wandering Days are Over” is a fantastic jam session with trumpet. And, finally, a wonderful track is “We Rule the School.” The strings, glockenspiel, and flute join with the guitars to create a serene, Simon and Garfunkel--esque musical scene to accompany its didactic message.

Long-time fans of Belle and Sebastian have probably already bought Tigermilk to replace their worn-out copy; but for newer fans, yes, this album is nearly as good as their other two and will increase your admiration for the band. This album isn’t a bad introduction to the band, but for those who have never even heard of them, try one of the other two first.