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"The BBC Sessions"

Belle And Sebastian – The BBC Sessions
17 November 2008, 09:00 Written by Simon Tyers
It's been a quiet period for Belle & Sebastian since their last tour, including a Hollywood Bowl triumph, in summer 2006. Stuart Murdoch has got married, turned 40 (!) and continues towards completion of the soundtrack to his musical 'God Help The Girl'. Good time for some appropriate filler, then, and while this BBC Sessions collection is by no means complete - absent is the celebrated 2002 sixteen track live Christmas session including a version of 'The Boy With The Arab Strap' curtailed when Murdoch accidentally sets off his keyboard's drum machine and culminating in a toy and animal voice aided gang cover of 'The Twelve Days Of Christmas' - there's more than plenty of interest.That's not least because the timespan covered by these fourteen tracks, 1996 to 2001, marks a seachange in the band's career path. They'd won their Brit Award, appeared on Top Of The Pops and started giving interviews by 2001, but they also lost bassist and co-founder Stuart David that year with Isobel Campbell's departure and the swapping of Jeepster Records for the comparative bright lights of Rough Trade soon to follow, and had started working with outside producers. This, then, represents phase one, before the band embarked upon the puncturing of their protective mythology and what Murdoch freely admits was a deliberate attempt to become more radio friendly. The first five tracks are from two 1996 Mark Radcliffe sessions when nobody else knew anything else about them except that they had a vinyl album called Tigermilk that was already much sought after. 'The State I Am In' - what else? - opens and remains as exquisitely wry and delicate as it ever was, so completely opposed to all that was selling at the time that despite its nods to Nick Drake and the Smiths it still sounds like an individual, newly minted band right out of the blocks. Most of the rest of the session previews the still to come If You're Feeling Sinister, where 'Judy And The Dream Of Horses' doesn't come off well with power chords and school recorder but 'The Stars Of Track And Field' sounds even more sparse before building to triumphant if still fragile peaks.The Evening Session followed in 1998, again being mostly used to preview new material. It's still effort over polish - Stevie Jackson's quavering vocals on 'Seymour Stein' have a certain wonky charm while the lower key, almost countrified 'Lazy Line Painter Jane' with a solo Murdoch vocal won't supplant the original in most people's affections but retains its intelligent construction. 'Slow Graffiti' turns up here, though, and its sad slow burning balladeering eventually thrown away as track four on an EP effortlessly outranks many a lesser band's best efforts. Also intriguing is 'Wrong Love', a wistful acoustic strum backed by subtle strings later given a sped up Motowny sheen and renamed 'The Wrong Girl'. On this evidence you wonder if that really was a wise move.The real carrot comes in the last four tracks, a Peel session from 2001 of four songs that have never been otherwise released, as well as being the last studio recordings to feature Isobel Campbell. 'Shoot The Sexual Athlete' fixes a prowling bassline and almost spoken vocal to an extended lyrical tribute to the Go-Betweens, while 'The Magic Of A Kind Word' fits into their sixties bent of the time (think Jonathan David), except slower and with Isobel taking most of the lead vocals, and she stays on for 'Nothing In The Silence', which brings vibraphone and harmonica into its delicately wistful world and could have fit comfortably on either of the first two albums. '(My Girl's Got) Miraculous Technique' is meanwhile a summery swoon decorated with fizzing synths, what seems unusually close to a breakbeat and a reference to "JP at Maida Vale", and the band had better have a bloody good reason for it, and at least one of its predecessors in this session, not to have made the subsequent Dear Catastrophe Waitress. Initial copies come with a second CD recorded in Belfast in December 2001, featuring guest vocalists from the audience and covers of the Beatles' 'Here Comes The Sun', Thin Lizzy’s 'The Boys Are Back In Town' and the Velvet Underground's 'I'm Waiting For The Man'. Haven't got it to hand so can't tell you what it's like, but doubtless much fun was had by all.It may seem to be for fans only, but it's not too much of a stretch to imagine people new to Belle & Sebastian falling for them just on the basis of these subtly smart, understatedly by turns euphoric and intimate songs. As for the fans, stopgap this may be, but somehow this collection adds up to more than just occasionally shaky live versions of much loved older songs, largely because the band at this stage never seemed that produced, and for those who seem increasingly turned off by cleaner production and faltering mainstream recognition ambitions - a sentiment I suspect the band themselves share to some extent, having seen them on that last tour play a 100 minute set only including the singles from The Life Pursuit - but discovered something of themselves to the accompaniment of the Sinister mailing list, Ink Polaroids and publicity photos of someone's mate doing the ironing, it comes highly recommended. 82%Belle And Sebastian official site
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