Number 7: Belle and Sebastian-If You’re Feeling Sinister
Belle and Sebastian have a very unique sound. In 1996, it was uncommon to hear bands experimenting with harmonicas and psychedelic sounds like 65-67 Beatles or Beach Boys. It was even more uncommon to hear those bands come out of Scotland. Of course, since Belle and Sebastian made If You’re Feeling Sinister, Scotland has produced a lot of great indie acts like Franz Ferdinand, Travis, and Mogwai, but in 1996, Belle and Sebastian were the only truly notable indie acts working out of Glasgow.
Perhaps that’s what makes If You’re Feeling Sinister such a unique sounding album. Unlike the strong independent communities in places like Athens, LA, and Seattle, there weren’t very many bands for Belle and Sebastian to draw from. Without a local reference for what it meant to be a good indie band, Stuart Murdoch and his band of Scottish dreamers had to forge their own sound, anchored by Murdoch’s excellent lyrics and upbeat acoustic guitars.
Belle and Sebastian have more than a little Bob Dylan in their musical lineage, as well as some Nick Drake, but they’re arguably more like an acoustic Smiths. Murdoch has a Morrissey-esque wit about him, but also has a very tender, vulnerable side. The first song on the album doesn’t really grab the listener, but “Seeing Other People” isn’t bad. “Me and the Major” is a rollicking song made for dancing, complete with great harmonica action and a quick drumbeat. “Like Dylan In The Movies” has good harmonies that make for a haunting chorus and “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” is remarkably bouncy for a song with such an ominous title. The album’s high point is definitely the title track, a five and a half minute epic, which pulls together all the themes of the album, from childhood and adolescence and growing up, to living as an outsider in an unfamiliar world. The end of the album continues to impress (even if Mayfly has the same melody as “She Bangs The Drums” by the Stone Roses).
Belle and Sebastian have made a lot of good songs on a lot of great albums in the past 16 years, but If You’re Feeling Sinister stands out as a highlight in their catalogue. It’s their most unified album, has some of their best songs, and is the best showcase for their introspective, wistful pop music. It doesn’t try to confine itself as an “indie album”, or a “folk album”. Belle and Sebastian struck musical gold on If You’re Feeling Sinister.
I heartily recommend If You’re Feeling Sinister. It’s got a sound that is at once both intimately familiar and strangely esoteric. Stuart Murdoch is a great singer and lyricist and he surrounds himself with good musicians who know exactly how much to give any particular song. The result is a finely-crafted pop-folk masterpiece.