Sunday, January 25, 2009

This Year's Belle & Sebastian Purchase

(actually last year's, as I bought these in December)

Belle & Sebastian BBC Sessions
Belle & Sebastian Live in Belfast 2001

I have lost touch a bit with Belle & Sebastian. A lot of this is down to their last album, The Life Pursuit. No amount of re-listening has raised it in my estimation – it is fundamentally rubbish. There are a couple of songs on it that are not that bad, but these ones are at best only quite good. With B&S, that is not good enough. So it seems like the great band of our times has gone shite and it is time for me to move on. The band's next album will not be finding its way into Panda Mansions.

The recent release of a record of BBC sessions offered the prospect of re-exploring the halcyon days of the band's past, discovering new versions of some of the band's greatest tunes and listening again to some songs only ever heard on crackly radio. The sessions are, unfortunately, mostly interesting rather than fascinating gems of total genius. You are, I assume, familiar with The Smiths. With them, the radio session versions of their songs were wonderful rough diamond alternatives to the more polished studio versions, with each having their merits. With Belle & Sebastian, though, the session versions just sound like unfinished versions of the versions that saw commercial release. They are still worth listening to, but we will never see serious argument over which is best of, say, the session or album version of 'The Stars of Track & Field'. It maybe does not help that the tracks appearing here that never found their way onto proper recordings are a bit throwaway.

There are a couple of exceptions to all this, mind. One track I am pretty fond of is 'Lazy Jane', a Monica Queen-free early version of 'Lazy Line Painter Jane' (official greatest ever ever recorded). This version really goes for the laziness suggested by the title, with the track ambling along in an endearingly sleepy and low-key manner. It does go a bit mental at the end, in a manner reminiscent of the released version, but it is interesting as a valid vision of another way of doing things.

One or two exceptions aside, the radio sessions record is ultimately not all that. I was glad, therefore, that I got the limited edition of the record that comes with a bonus disc recording of a B&S concert in Belfast (just before Christmas in 2001, and I should know – I was there). This is actually a lot more like it, capturing the band at that time when they had not merely got the hang of playing live but had become one of these islands' most kickarse live propositions. What also makes this a great live album is that you get a sense of how raucous and up-for-it the audience was. Deadly stuff.

One great moment in this was when the band launched into a rather unexpected live version of Thin Lizzy's 'The Boys Are Back In Town'. Raw power. Another was when they invited someone from the audience up to join them (something they do not seem to do anymore now that they have gone shite), and some bloke called Barry joined them (crowd: "Barry! Barry! Barry!"; you had to be there). He then led B&S in a rowsing version of the Velvet Underground's 'I'm Waiting for the Man'. Deadly stuff. It must be weird being Barry now and finding a record released with you singing on it. I wonder does he get any royalties. I spoke to him briefly back then, and he mentioned playing in a band called Da Capo, so he had at least some prior experience performing in front of people.

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