Belle & Sebastian are something of an institution.
The band have grown from DIY origins to carve out an international reputation, constructing a nigh-on impeccable catalogue in the process.
Free-spirited indie pop that nods towards everything from French pop to Northern soul, disco, and more, the band's discography includes a vast array of teasingly addictive gems.
Pictish Trail - Scottish songwriter Johnny Lynch - is set to support Belle & Sebastian on the upcoming European leg of their tour, and he kindly agreed to act as navigator on a personal journey through the band's archive.
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‘You Made Me Forget My Dreams’ (from 'Lazy Line Painter Jane' EP)
The atmosphere of this recording, Stuart’s slight sigh at the beginning, the reverb soaked piano and guitar, it’s all so relaxed. There’s a melancholy air of resignation about the whole thing, that’s just beautiful. That vocal melody is heart-breaking, and when the strings come in after the third verse, the whole song swells, it’s pretty emotional. A tambourine comes in for the final verse, before the song itself turns into a space rocket, and blasts off into the cosmos.
Back in 2010, I was in an electro-pop act called Silver Columns, and we were asked to play at Belle and Sebastian's Bowlie 2 weekender. At the end of our set we did a cover of this song, replete with a good five minute techno work-out at the end. We probably didn’t do it justice, but my god what a tune.
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‘Slow Graffiti’ (from 'This Is Just A Modern Rock Song' EP)
This song does that classic Belle & Sebastian thing of starting out just Stuart on his own, then the rhythm section strikes up, then rhodes, backing vocals, strings, brass all gradually seep in. I’m not entirely sure what it’s about, a lot of his lyrics are like fragmented thoughts or snippets of conversation - often alluding to something quite sinister, hidden behind closed doors.
I really enjoy the way he can present a fairly domestic, solitudinous lyric - “I stay in, to defrost the fridge” - and pair it with a grand, almost majestic musical arrangement. There’s something about that dichotomy which is at the heart of the band’s appeal, for me.
Also this song’s protagonist is called Johnny, and so it wins bonus points for that.
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'Sleep The Clock Around’ (from 'The Boy With The Arab Strap')
Bagpipes in a song. It shouldn’t work, should it? But, no matter how cheesy the pipes sound on their own, when placed in the context of a song they’re always stirringly Scottish - ‘Mull Of Kintyre’ gets me all weepy, every time.
There’s a definite tongue-in-cheek thrill when the pipes roar in at the end of ‘Sleep The Clock Around’. I remember hearing this track for the first time. I’d been a big fan of 'If You’re Feeling Sinister' and the EPs, and then I heard this album, and the whole thing just felt like a huge celebration of how far they had come as a band.
You can imagine the conversation in the studio: "How can we make this song bigger? …let’s put some fucking bagpipes on it!"
I was 16, and at that age you’re so invested in the bands that you love, that every step they take towards becoming a more confident act, feels like a personal gesture of good-will towards you as a fan. Like a reward of some kind, for supporting them. Sort of saying “Hey - look, we’re doing it!”. That sounds crazy, but that’s genuinely how it felt as a fan.
When they got on Top Of The Pops with ‘Legal Man’ a few years later, those feelings of excitement and pride went through the roof. Amazing.
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‘Stars Of Track And Field’ (from 'If You’re Feeling Sinister: Live At the Barbican')
This is the opening song to their second LP, but this live version just pips the album version for me, with its süped-up, adrenalin-pumping blast of sound in the last 10 seconds. I won’t say anything more, just listen to the song nice and loud, please.
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‘(My Girl’s Got) Miraculous Technique’ (from The BBC Sessions)
Recorded exclusively for John Peel, in 2001, this song wasn’t available anywhere else until a BBC Sessions compilation came out seven years later. This is one of the things I love most about this band - they create mystery and intrigue, and making things difficult to get ahold of, which is like cat-nip for fans.
When this was broadcast, most folks didn’t have a decent enough broadband connection to share online - so the only way you could get ahold of it was by taping it off the radio, or by taping it from a friend who had taped it off the radio.
The track is a total beaut - I genuinely think it’s one of their best, most refined pop songs. A cute looped sample, great vocal melody, top harmonies, and the respective string and flute solos are sublime. That they would choose to not record it for commercial release, but keep it tucked away on a radio session, makes it all the more special.
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‘We Were Beautiful’ (from 'How To Solve Our Human Problems Pt.1 EP')
I was asked to pick five songs, but I’d be remiss not to include something more recent from their catalogue, so I’m breaking the rules. The band made such an indelible mark during my teenage years, that I have a close relationship to the songs from that era - but all of their albums are brilliant.
‘We Were Beautiful’, the first single from their current batch of EPs, showcases everything that is great about the band, and if folks are new to them, I reckon they’d probably be as well starting with this song, and working their way back. It opens with a slippery electronic groove, paired with an insistent bass-line, and a cool, understated vocal, before bursting into a huge, harmony-driven chorus.
Choruses are something of an anomaly with Belle and Sebastian - they don’t really happen all that often. This chorus is HUMUNGOUS. Looking forward to singing along to this one, on tour.
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Belle & Sebastian will release new EP 'How To Solve Our Human Problems Pt. 3' on February 16th.
Catch Pictish Trail supporting Belle & Sebastian at the following shows:
5 Antwerp, Belgium De Roma
6 Strasbourg La Laiterie
7 Paris Salle Pleyel
8 Paris Walrus (FREE in-store, solo)
9 Nantes, France Stereolux
11 Luxembourg Rockhal
12 Zurich, Switzerland Xtra Limmathaus
13 Milan, Italy Fabrique
14 Bologna, Italy Estragon
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