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  • Belle & Sebastian Albums From Worst To Best
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9. Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant (2000): The absolute nadir of Belle & Sebastian's largely sterling catalog, the fourth full-length B&S is inconsistent, incoherent, and almost entirely unsatisfying. Nearly every member gets a spotlight of their own here and nearly every one of them underwhelms, from the just-OK (Stevie Jackson's "The Wrong Girl") to the utterly charmless "Family Tree" from Isobel Campbell. It doesn't help that this is Murdoch's weakest set of songs overall, although two out-and-out gems, "The Model" and "Women's Realm," go some way toward redeeming the proceedings.

Pop music is full of great, apocryphal origin stories, and Belle & Sebastian’s is one of the best. The yarn goes like this: young Stuart Murdoch is a student at Glasgow’s Stow College when he enrolls in a course on ’music business.’ For some reason, the curriculum involves recording demos, and when it comes his turn, Murdoch is no average striving collegiate — in fact, he’s done his homework and then some. Arriving with a batch of tremendous, crackerjack songs, he is immediately placed front and center by the university-sponsored label (?!?) Electric Honey, and proffered with funding to expand upon his vision with a full-length album. (All of this may be absolutely credible and by-the-letter correct. But at a minimum, there is a lot we Yanks don’t understand about college in Scotland).

In any event, Murdoch and his assembled cohort — christened Belle & Sebastian after a French children’s book — more than justifies this initial confidence by producing the full-length Tigermilk, a terrific debut filled with instantly memorable songs.

And so it began.

Upon arrival, the most immediately striking element of Belle & Sebastian was the unique and fully formed narrative voice of Murdoch. His capacity as a storyteller from both the first- and third-person was precocious and startling — his songs were layered tales of wry and rueful outcasts, downtrodden miscreants and socially maladroit geniuses — characters so well drawn you could feel you were in a room with them. As a singer he sounded a bit like Nick Drake, but as a lyricist he was immediately miles beyond him — closer in spirit to the rarefied company of Warren Zevon, Randy Newman, and Mark Eitzel. Crucially, while dealing frequently with heavy issues of depression and spiritual disillusionment, Murdoch never failed to intuit the power of a good joke. Songs like “The State That I Am In,” the lead track from Tigermilk and an early masterpiece, turn on a dime from the heartbreaking to the hilarious. A fine example of this phenomenon comes in that song’s brilliant second verse, when amidst a gradually unfolding account of distressing events told with offhand affability, Murdoch informs us of the following:

“I got married in a rush / to save a kid from being deported / and now she’s in love.”

In love, presumably, with someone else. Having spun himself into a particularly horrifying predicament, Murdoch then rejoins with the following sentiment:

“Oh, I was so touched / I was moved to kick the crutches from my crippled friend.”

This is laugh-out-loud funny, and the singer clearly enjoys his own witticism, but just as quickly he regrets his cruelty, begs forgiveness, foreswears further envy, takes himself to church, and promises to take special care of the self-same “crippled friend.” This is also classic Murdoch — constantly at war with his own competing impulses toward empathy, piety and sin — a colossal internal conflict which leads nearly always to an amusing cycle of fuck-ups followed by full-fledged, and fully sincere, confessionals.

If Murdoch’s audacious gift as a writer is rightfully one of Belle & Sebastian’s hallmarks, the other elements that most inform the band’s identity are somewhat more complicated. Following the very fine first release Tigermilk and up until its jaw-droppingly great follow up If You’re Feeling Sinister, this was a large band imbued with Murdoch’s highly singular vision. Then, for reasons that feel mysterious, Belle & Sebastian suddenly became something like a creative democracy, with associate members such as original bassist Stuart David, onetime Murdoch paramour Isobel Campbell, and longtime first lieutenant Stevie Jackson taking turns not only on lead vocals but also contributing their own songs. While it is no great insult to say that the material the others contributed did not measure up in quality to Murdoch’s own, it is also difficult to overstate the extent to which the decision weakened the band’s output. There are many plausible theories as to why Murdoch may have decided to spread creative duties around — discomfort with the spotlight, a desire to share credit (and songwriting revenue), or even creative fatigue on his own behalf — but the net result was some of the worst music the band has ever made.

That first issue relates directly to a second: Belle & Sebastian’s preference for highly stylized arrangements, filled with breathy vocals, miniature orchestras played with minimal skill, and other affectations of ’chamber pop’ that has been the occasional fashion of the indie world from time to time over the past 30 years. Murdoch has made clear his fundamental attraction to things that are ’pretty,’ and in fact many of Belle & Sebastian’s more baroque arrangements serve the material in good stead. As countless lyrical allusions make clear, B&S are fans of ’60s music and fashion. While Murdoch seems to have taken his thematic and lyrical cues from Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground, his interest in arrangements hues closer to the florid musical niceties of Left Banke or Serge Gainsbourg.

What is laid fascinatingly bare in reviewing the band’s catalog is the disparity in quality which occurs when these tendencies are wed to the ballast of Murdoch’s powerful storytelling, versus the instances when the same approach is taken by the less-accomplished, -detailed and -surprising writing of his cohort. While songs by other bandmates had been scattered amid the band’s early EP’s, the first full-length album to attempt to integrate multiple voices was 1997′s The Boy With The Arab Strap, which features two contributions from Stevie Jackson, one from Stuart David (whose preference for spoken word tracks with minimal backing was always an awkward fit in the band), and a lead vocal from Isobel Campbell on “Is It Wicked Not To Care.” In this case, Belle & Sebastian largely gets away with it: Jackson’s two music-business centric compositions “Seymour Stein” and “Chickfactor” are winsome and attractive (although neither would qualify as better than C+ Murdoch compositions). David’s “A Space Boy Dream” is buried halfway through the second side and sequenced between two of the album’s best tracks — it goes by nearly unnoticed. Only Campbell’s singing is an unrequited disaster, hugely precious on a song which is the closest the band had to come to self-parody up to that point. These moments are all surrounded by several great Murdoch songs, and overall The Boy With The Arab Strap works. But as the next record would demonstrate, the trendline was not a good one.

This leads us to a final ponderance before we commence the Countdown. Belle & Sebastian is often referred to as ’twee’ — but are they? And what exactly do we mean by twee anyway? Certainly the term is a pejorative to some and maybe most listeners. As to our own feelings: There are few rings of cultural hell so abysmal and torturous as when grown adults affect childlike mannerisms in order to achieve some kind of meaningful expression. At its worst twee culture is a two-way tie between cheap and creepy which represents the worst kind of ugly pandering (although it is clearly catnip to the advertisers who have made the ’adorkable’ presence of 30-something-going-on-13 Zooey Deschanel an inevitable consequence of turning on the television for more than an hour.) Having said that, as with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous declaration that hard-core pornography was “hard to define, but I know it when I see it,” it is a difficult, and indeed highly subjective matter to determine when artistic forays into youthful melancholy and studied whimsy cross the line from legitimate thought exercise into insufferable preciousness (See: Anderson, Wes).

In Belle & Sebastian, between their good work and bad, we seem to have something like an answer. While the band’s delicate miniature approach is clearly a consequence of Stuart Murdoch’s own aesthetic preferences, the humor, insight, and sheer quality of his writing has in almost every instance provided a tension and bulwark that has prevented (sometimes narrowly) his own material from sliding into the twee. Without his hand on the wheel, things have not always gone so well. Great writing, it seems, can stand up to nearly any form of arrangement; Murdoch’s best songs would succeed if they were sung by Motorhead. Alternatively, no amount of bells and whistles, strings and piccolos, four-part vocal harmonies and whispered sighs can rescue an insubstantial song from banality. Sometimes, though, all of that can make it worse.

So, you wanna get nuts?? Let’s get nuts. The Countdown starts here. Crutch-kicking? In the comments.

Comments (72)
  1. I want to see Stereogum’s Albums From Worst To Best From Worst To Best

    • 1. Fugazi Albums From Worst to Best
      2. The Cure Albums From Worst to Best
      3. The Roots Albums From Worst to Best
      4. Mark Kozelek Albums From Worst to Best
      5. Dinosaur Jr. Albums From Worst to Best
      6. Ryan Adams Albums From Worst to Best
      7. Belle and Sebastian Albums From Worst to Best
      8. Damon Albarn’s Side Projects Albums From Worst To Best
      9. Pearl Jam Albums From Worst to Best
      .
      .
      1,000,000. R.E.M Albums From Worst to Best

      • what the fuck are you on about? fold your hands the worst? next to a soundtrack album? now we are getting a bit out of our league with the ‘worst to best’ countdowns. you’re taking a novel idea and just insulting cerebral people now. Even a Belle and Sebastian fan could tell you their albums could be ranked on date (of proper release, yes, no one had a copy of ‘tigermilk’ until 1999) and i’m off now, back to the real world…….

      • I’m trying to think of a Mark Kozelek/ Sun Kil Moon/ RHP album that I don’t adore

  2. I thought I was the only one who liked “Dear Catastrophe Waitress” that much. It’s my favorite of theirs.

  3. Other than there’s no way the Storytelling soundtrack is better than Fold Your Hands Child… I completely agree with this ranking.

  4. LEAVE WES ANDERSON OUT OF THIS

  5. I largely agree with this but find my own enjoyment of their current work fades with age – my age and their age. Does “twee” work when the band is middle aged?

    • i wasn’t crazy about “the life pursuit” but “write about love” has “i didn’t see it coming” and “i want the world to stop”, both of which are absolutely brilliant

      saw them in boston a couple years ago and it felt like going to church. stuart murdoch is one of the most compelling performers i’ve ever seen. he even brought nerf footballs for the kids in the audience! he would pick out a kid between songs and then bomb a football from the stage up into the balcony. i think he said something like “you kids in the audience must be pretty darned bored right now so let’s try to make this a little more fun”

      it’s so graitfying when a show you have crazy high expectations for lives up to them (see also: http://happymusicsadmusic.blog.com/2012/07/31/frank-ocean-at-the-paradise-boston-72812/), i’ll always consider B&S one of my favorite bands. when i ranked “if you’re feeling sinister” at #1 on my p4k people’s list the pithy comment i posted sums up pretty well how i feel about the band:

      “Stuart Murdoch is telling your story by telling his own…”

      • Write About Love also has “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet Jo” and “The Ghost of Rock School.” It definitely took time for the album to grow on me, but then again I loved The Life Pursuit as well.

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  7. There is absolutely no way that Tigermilk is any way worse than top 3. To say it’s 6th is laughable…

    • Yeah, that’s just puzzling. Expectations! I Don’t Love Anyone! And those two aren’t even the best songs on that record.

    • Yeah, it should be number one. ‘Electric Renaissance’ and ‘I Could Be Dreaming’ is one of the best 1 2 punches in music mannnn.

      • I feel the same way about “Electronic Renaissance.” It is the best. But it seems like it gets written off by people regularly. I think AV Club put it on their list of bad songs on great albums. Don’t get that at all.

  8. i read Kafka’s The Trial just because it was on the cover of If You’re Feeling Sinister. that’s how good that album is.

    • Speaking of which, what would the best B&S album covers be? For me:

      1. Tigermilk
      2. Dear Catastrophe Waitress
      3. Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant
      4. The Life Pursuit
      5. Push Barman to Open Old Wounds

  9. switch life pursuit with push barman and you have damn near the only list I’ve ever agreed with on stereogum

  10. this list is almost perfect. just switch 2 & 3 and bump up the EP comp. to #4 = PERFECTION!

  11. Am I the only one puzzled by The Boy with the Arab Strap being beaten out by Dear Catastrophe Waitress and The Life Pursuit? Those are pretty good albums, but they’re kind of patchy compared to Arab Strap, which in my opinion does not have any weak moments. Even “A Space Boy Dream” works in the running order as nice little intermission between the first and second halves of the album.

  12. I still think they should have tried to use a real tiger cub for that cover. What’s the worst that could happen?

  13. I didn’t love “Dear Catastrophe Waitress” as much as the listmakers. Move that one down to 6 and push everything up one, and that would be my list.

  14. Sort of sad about the disrespect for Fold Your Hands…. It’s got its flaws, but that album has really grown on me over time.

  15. Okay. Compared to the masterpieces I guess you could go so far as to call Fold Yr Hands a weak album, but seriously…..”dire”??? The Wrong Girl just “okay”? Family Tree “charmless”? Really? Also: Don’t Leave the Light On, Baby.

  16. everyone has said it and i’ll add my support: dcw needs to be knocked down at least a few notches and tigermilk needs to be at number 1 or 2. i’m all for post-fyh b&s (the placement of tlp is fine) but dcw is just not very good. and tigermilk is pretty much equal to iyfs (ie: perfect).

  17. Tigermilk at #6 = flame bait!!!!

  18. 1. The Boy With The Arab Strap
    2. If You’re Feeling Sinister
    3. Tigermilk
    4. Push Barman To Open Old Wounds
    5. Dear Catastrophe Waitress
    6. Write About Love
    7. Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant
    8. The Life Pursuit
    9. Storytelling

  19. Someone really hates Isobel Campbell. “Is it Wicked Not to Care” I actually love (and “Family Tree”). The title track for “Boy with the Arab Strap” is certainly my fave of theirs, and one of my favorite songs ever I guess. “State That I am In” (both versions) and “Lazy Line Painter Jane” are probably my faves.

  20. “…the fourth full-length B&S is inconsistent, incoherent, and almost entirely unsatisfying.”

    What?! The album is great! It’s far better than the inconsistent, incoherent and entirely unsatisfying “Storytelling.”

    • That said, Lazy Line Painter Jane and String Bean Jean take the cake as far as their best songs go.

      • 2 of their top 10 for sure…don’t forget about Your Covers Blown, I Love My Car, Piazza…so many, i made my own double cd ‘best of’ after Write About Love came out, it was hard to choose those top 30 tracks. had to leave out some old favs that i think of as boring, like Fox in the Snow.

  21. Capital list.

  22. controversial(?) opinion: Stay Loose is the best closing track on any B&S release.

  23. I sincerely don’t understand why Fold Your Hand Child gets such a bad rap. It’s enjoyable as hell. I fought In a war? The Model? Women’s Realm? There’s Too much love? I’d rank those songs up there with B&S’s BEST.

    It’s UNQUESTIONABLY better than Storytelling, which barely even felt like an album and lacked a single memorable song.

    Furthermore Dear Catastrophe Waitress was an interesting change in direction and had some good songs on it, but it is definitely a transitional record. And I don’t think they full realized that change until Life Pursuit, which feels A LOT more organic…even though for my money, B&S still hasn’t really felt quite right with BIG production

    Furthermore neither of those records are better than CLASSIC Era B&S (and I would put Fold Your Hands and everything that came before it, in that category). I’m also generally flabbergasted/annoyed by the number of people who LOVE Catastrophe or Life Pursuit… but haven’t actually heard Sinister or Tigermilk. Boggles my mind. They’re basically two different bands.

    Also: Does anyone remember that infamous Pitchfork review where they gave Arab Strap a 0.0 or a 1.0 or something? What was up with that?

    For my money:

    1. Sinister
    2. Tigermilk
    3. Barman
    4. Fold your hands
    5. Arab Strap
    6. Life Pursuit
    7. Catastrophe
    8. Write about Love
    9. Storytelling

    Also:

  24. you should’ve ranked the albums from twee to twee-est.

  25. Put on some old sad bastard music, see if I care.

  26. The inclusion of Push Barman was dumb, and you completely missed the boat on Tigermilk (best in my opinion, but I’ll settle for top 2 or 3). Otherwise OK I guess.

  27. i think i’m the only person who actually likes “write about love”.

  28. I’d switch barman with fold your hands and it pretty much looks like my list.

  29. Sex Pistols albums from worst to best.

  30. Definitely not enough love for Tigermilk.

  31. It would all be a tie.

    They all suck

  32. How about side projects? I didn’t care for “God Save the Girl” when it came out, but now every time a song comes up in shuffle, I kind of love it.

  33. 1. If You’re Feeling Sinister
    2. The Boy With The Arab Strap
    3. Tigermilk
    4. Dear Catastrophe Waitress
    5. Push Barman To Open Old Wounds
    6. Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant
    7. Write About Love
    8. The Life Pursuit
    9. Storytelling

  34. I have never listened to a entire B&S album. This post will help me a lot on where to start, thanks.

  35. storytelling is an awesome movie. TBWTAS is the equal of IYFS, if not better. Tigermilk just below that. DCW at number 2 is just ridiculous. not a good album at all.

  36. Super overrated band

  37. i find it ironic that S’gum find B&S worthy of album rankings, YET Write About Love was NOT worthy of being listed as a friggin’ Top 50 Album of 2011…RI-diculous. The title track and I Didn’t See It Coming make it more than worthy ALONE…add to that ‘Little Luke’…the best duet anyones heard in YEARS with Nora Jones, Read the Blessed Pages, a perfect oldschool folk song the whole Joni Mitchell gang woulda loved…I Want the World to Stop…there isn’t a weak track on the whole album and it was their best in years. I’m still waiting for their apology to the band.

  38. I was under the impression nobody liked Dear Catastrophe Waitress. This is one of my favorite groups and any best of’s I ever make include anything on this album.

    All these lists have one of these wtf rankings so big surprise.

    A collection of songs on a cd does not equal an album. An album is a set of songs united in concept, meant to stand on it’s own. Storytelling is a soundtrack. It is group writing with outside influences. It doesn’t count.

    Push Barman shouldn’t be included either for obvious reasons, though Disc 1 could easily be their best album.

    Sinister
    Arab Strap
    Life Pursuit
    Tigermilk
    Write About Love
    Fold Your Hands
    Dear Catastrophe Waitress

  39. A band whose records don’t seem to play as long anymore for me. I’d rank ‘Life Pursuit’ and ‘Push Barman’ near the top. ‘Sinister’ used to be a fave, but it just doesn’t play like it used to for me. I hear it and just wanna listen to Nick Drake. I think they hit their stride after Isobel Campbell left the group. ‘Waitress’ had some great jams, but as an album it falls short. I feel like Tigermilk to Fold Your Hands era has some great songs, but none keep my fingers away from moving the needle around. And the democracy version 2.0 B&S is so annoying – good ridance Isobel. And that last LP ‘Write About Love’ was utterly disappointing to my ears. I’ve heard ppl remark that it’s worth a second look, but I was so completely underwhelmed on the first round that I’ve stayed clear. I’m sorta saddened to have lost interest in so much of what I thought once to be great. But there’s so definitely good jams. In my collection, and my interest in the band they’re a singles band.

  40. Are you high??? Dear Catastropher Waitress is clearly the beginning of the end. And including The Life Pursuit in the top three is just as curious. I don’t know what I was expecting to find, and I guess you had to do that in order to write an article that seemingly doesn’t need to be written because anyone with ears and a scant amount of taste can understand that the clear top three are 1. Sinister 2. Arab Strap 3. Tigermilk. The rest of the pieces fall into place from there. Get a clue.

    • Okay I feel I was maybe a bit harsh in this initial comment. I’m not a fan of new b&s obviously, and I thought for the most part old fans felt the same way.

      • You’re original comment was spot on in my book. Dear Catastrophe Waitress and everything after pales in comparison to the older recordings.

  41. Very accurate to my taste

  42. Well, at the risk of just restating what a lot of pople have already said about this almost year-old article, this list has serious problems. You can like whatever you want (I personally love Fold Your Hands Child, which seems to be universally hated), but mistaking your peculiar preferences for the real story is something else. Elevating B&S’s post-2000 albums is a pretty idiosyncratic take on this catalogue. Failing to put ‘Push Barmen to Open Old Wounds’ into the top half of B&S albums is beyond ridiculous–most of their greatest work is on there.

  43. [I acknowledge that I'm commenting way after the article was published. So what?]
    It’s interesting how the feelings for bands you loved in high school tend to mutate as the years go by. I tried listening to Tigermilk again a few years ago, and I hated it. (The melodies were too facile, the sentiment too cutesy, Stuart always playing the cloying mama’s boy. “I Don’t Love Anyone” was the only song I still related to. Maybe I was just in the wrong mood?) Whereas my affection for The Life Pursuit has only grown over the years. As it stands:
    1. The Life Pursuit
    2. If You’re Feeling Sinister–I’m scared to revisit this one, but I’ll put it here.
    3. Dear Catastrophe Waitress–the vibe’s a bit syrupy for my taste, but the songs are brilliant.
    4. Push Barman
    5. The Boy With The Arab Strap–1/2 gems, 1/2 duds
    6. Fold Your Hands–About as good as Arab Strap. I don’t know why it gets a bum rap.
    7. Tigermilk
    8. Write About Love–Sarah’s and Stevie’s songs are terrific, but Stuart’s seem like they were written the night before the sessions started. And that abhorrent Norah Jones duet!
    9. Storytelling–I listened once, and it made no impression on me.
    10. [The Third Eye Centre]–same
    11. [God Help The Girl]–”Come Monday Night” and “I’ll Have to Dance With Cassie” are great, but the rest…yuck

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