Album Review: Belle And Sebastian – What To Look For In Summer

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Whenever rival fans are looking up cliches to support the assertion that indie music is twee, Belle And Sebastian are usually one of the bands which they like to kick sand in the face of.

It’s fair to say that the Glaswegians haven’t helped themselves much in the past, from their DIY beginnings with 1996’s effete Tigermilk to their rejection of anything which seemed codified to the evils of rock and roll.

Band leader Stuart Murdoch has also spoken recently about his determination in the early days that they would insist on playing gigs in less orthodox venues, a bus which took them to places like Colchester Arts Centre and the Queens Hall in Dunoon. Times have changed, but whilst the concept of a floating festival isn’t a new one, the 2019 Boaty Weekender event they curated and headlined will have to go down as where the most sunblock was probably applied.

Six years out from the last Belle And Sebastian album of original material, and putting the so-so Days Of Bagnold Summer behind them, this new double live album is certainly a far worthier stopgap than its predecessor. Culled mostly from the trip, but also bolstered by material from a handful of other shows, at 26 tracks it’s a substantial listen, one that will plug the gap after the cancellation of studio time in LA earlier this year.

Not, of course, that this is anything as gauche as a greatest hits set, but there’s certainly enough delving into the archives to make a famously zealous fanbase happy right enough, as they say.

From before the band were officially minted comes My Wandering Days Are Over – about former co-singer and girlfriend Isobel Campbell – while from the fledgling album If You’re Feeling Sinister there’s an epic version of the title-track, along with a reflective The Fox In The Snow, plus The Boy Done Wrong Again and Seeing Other People.

The potential flaw in this format is always a maybe, namely reproducing the in-person buzz. But the overwhelming impression, other than having a back catalogue which would be the envy of many groups, is of a quiet, hubris-free sense of confidence and place; these are Murdoch’s people and he their bard, roles framed by a neat and self-deprecating line in patter between songs that feel like asides from some intimate conversation in a pub.

There’s also a license to (very gently) kick some butt; Belle And Sebastian aren’t exactly Metallica but there’s piano, keyboards, brass and some appreciable heft to songs like Dog On Wheels and Stay Loose, the latter keeping both its original majesty and its (gasp) guitar solo.

Still, whatever the axe work, subtlety is probably what an outsider would perceive to be the group’s forte. Almost buried amongst the heavyweight running order are Funny Little Frog and Poor Boy, either of which are candidates for the most pleasant departure, slotting into grooves that belie their creator’s lecturer-friendly reputation for aloofness.

Always evident, Murdoch’s affection for his audience peaks with the introduction of the show’s centrepiece, The Boy With The Arab Strap, during which he gently chides them for a lack of volunteers to join them on stage, as is tradition. The song itself loses no charm despite being in the wild, clocking in at nearly eight minutes and never relinquishing the communal good time rhythm that has made it such an affectionate staple.

What To Look For In Summer would slay many outsiders’ myths if Belle And Sebastian were too bothered about any of them, but revving at the traffic lights is not their way.

Passion comes in all sorts of doses – and these songs have steel enough to be heard at a Village Hall near you for many years to come.

Andy Peterson

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