Belle & Sebastian – The Boy With the Arab Strap

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

I saw Belle & Sebastian live, and I hated it. I left early. They took the wrong approach, to my way of thinking. I believe it was 2006 (thanks, internet), by which time the band had strayed from their original sound, so really, I should have known better (in my defense, I was there to see the New Pornographers, and Belle & Sebastian was to be gravy). But I was hoping for, if not expecting, the sounds from Sinister and Arab Strap and what I got instead was Stuart Murdoch standing on top of a monitor waving his t-shirt over his head in the most misguided rock star posturing of all time. Bands should stick to what they do best. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.

What I Think of This Album

The Boy With the Arab Strap has at least as many peaks as its predecessor (if not more, or maybe higher ones), but is overall less consistent, with some experiments that do not work at all (and that were harbingers of similar poor decisions to come, to my ears). The two albums comprise the best Belle & Sebastian period and should be enjoyed together, like prosciutto and melon. Relevantly, this time the band substituted an ampersand for the “and” from their name as it appears on Sinister.

There is a bit more variety this time around, notably in the vocals. Multi-instrumentalist Isobel Campbell breaks out (before actually breaking out on her own with a solo career) with co-lead on the winning electronica-with-horns inflected “Sleep the Clock Around” as well as on the countryish “The Rollercoaster Ride,” and lead on the winsome “Is It Wicked Not to Care?” Campbell is well-served by her material and you wonder what she could have added to If You’re Feeling Sinister.

Guitarist Stevie Jackson gets two less successful numbers (the plodding music industry complaint of “Seyour Stein” (complete with a Smiths reference and airplane noises), and the cringingly-titled “Chickfactor”), while bassist Stuart David tackles a spoken word piece (“A Space Boy Dream”) that turns into a blaxploitation soundtrack. These are also the songs that take the greatest musical risks, not always to the best effect. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with Belle & Sebastian tackling Isaac Hayes, and Jackson is not nearly the vocalist Murdoch is (who is not technically great, but certainly effective).

Beyond this, songs like “Ease Your Feet” and “A Summer Wasted” are standard Belle & Sebastian; these are worthy additions to the catalog. More deserving of attention are “Dirty Dream Number Two,” a fantastic song with a robust arrangement that actually makes effective use of spoken vocals (presumably from Campbell). The title track is another highlight, with handclaps, organ, recorder, and bass all combining to produce a snappy, bright masterpiece.

So you get five outstanding songs, a couple of pretty good ones, two that are sort of average, and three that are fairly unenjoyable.

The Best Thing About This Album

Isobel Campbell’s vocals.

Release Date

September, 1998

The Cover Art

Once again, they get the aesthetic right but the execution wrong. I love the green, and the placement of the band name and album, as well as their composition together. The actual photo is poor – band member Chris Geddes (compared to Johnny Marr in “Seymour Stein”) looks like a doofus in this shot.

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