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The first new B&S material since last year’s patchy ‘Fold Your Hands Child’ album also marks the debut of guitarist Stevie Jackson on A-side duties.
As such, Jackson’s more upbeat vocals make a pleasant change from Stuart Murdoch’s winsome tones and ‘Jonathan David’ is a suitably strident effort for him to display his abilities, although nowhere near as frenetic as last year’s superb ‘Legal Man’.
Jackson’s backed up by Murdoch and Isobel Campbell on the choruses as he declares “I was Jonathan to your David”. There’s plenty of keyboard action, with both piano and organ to the fore, along with some noticeably louder drumming. Another worthy effort from a band who seem to have pretty much perfected the art of churning out a fine succession of three-minute singles.
Second track ‘Take Your Carriage Clock And Shove It’ finds Mr Murdoch back on vocal duties in a string-drenched tale of a company man who, on receiving his retirement gift, finally lets out his true feelings about his job.
As is often the case with B&S, the gentle music is juxtaposed against the more bilious nature of the lyrics. Some lovely steel guitar manages to blend into the classical framework seamlessly. Another fine fanfare to the common man.
The third track is a studio version of long-time live favourite ‘The Loneliness Of The Middle Distance Runner’. Sounding as if it dates from around their second album ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’, musically it’s more of a black and white snapshot than the full-colour of their recent efforts, with sparser arrangements, but yet still possesses a certain charm.

Simon P Ward

Dotmusic – Jonathan David
August 2001
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The eight layabouts in the secretive Scotch band Belle and Sebastian are the new kings of the kind of teen-innocence porn that makes indie-rock fans cry “mama.” Manufacturing an illusion of high school cuddliness without actually appealing to teenagers, they issue four-minute fluff balls of nonsense Glasgow stories and singsong melodies – naive and fragile in the outside, tough with knowledge of obscure psychedelic pop records on the inside. The Boy With the Arab Strap is the band’s third album in two years, amid as many EPs and numerous downloadable songs-of-the-week at its Web site.

Redolent of the Velvet Underground’s cutest moments, this stuff is almost closer to sense memory than to music. Slouching along with Stuart Murdoch and Isobel Campbell’s breathy, uncertain vocals, and a small, unvirtuosic orchestra in the rear, the songs conjure aloneness, first love, discovering poetry and not knowing what to do about it. It’s the soundtrack to staying too long in your college neighborhood and becoming one of those types who hold down library jobs.

The air has grown dangerously precious on each of Belle and Sebastian’s previous records, so the greater richness and sophistication of Arab Strap come as a relief. A few songs actually read as creditable poems: “Seymour Stein,” a split-level daydream in which the real-life record mogul takes the singer’s sweetie away to America and his band out to dinner, holds fast to its conceit and attains goose-bump loveliness – it’s actually moving. Elsewhere, there are old Stones-like slide guitars, bagpipes and motor-trance rhythms, strings, xylophones, trumpets, flutes, and organs. And where too much of the band’s other music has been assiduously cloistered and rickety, best heard at private moments on headphones, this album’s got brilliant Spector-sound sunsets. It’s worthy of filing next to the Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out, R.E.M.’s Reckoning, and the Meat Puppets’ Up on the Sun: rock albums with an endless summer glow.

4 out of 5 stars: “excellent”

Rolling Stone – The Boy With The Arab Strap
September 1998

You can’t always believe your ears when you listen to Scotland’s Belle & Sebastian. Its highly mannered folk rock sounds prim and polite, like an aural doily. But its lyrics bristle with sarcasm, irony, even cruelty.

Such a pitched combination made the group’s 1997 debut, “If You’re Feeling Sinister,” one of the more subtle (and more playable) albums of the year, not to mention one of the more critically adored.

The new album continues in the same vein. Its twinkling melodies, fey vocals and dancing arrangements suggest a magical intersection of three mid-’60s styles, which all cross the last days of lounge music with the emerging folk rock of the day. You’ll hear the summery West Coast sounds of The Mamas & Pappas or the early Byrds, mixed with the chaste English balladry of Mary Hopkin or Marianne Faithfull, plus the muted peppy horns of Burt Bacharach.

“It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career” might have been performed by Simon and Garfunkel in ’66. Which only mkes its mean lyrics that much more jarring. Here, the narrator nearly chuckles over a painter who suffered a stroke at 24 because the band considers his work “a sham that’s going for a grand.”

The equally withering “Sleep the Clock Around” offers an ode to a depressed ne’er-do-well, matched to a woozy moog hook. The band’s lyrical barbs can get obnoxious, as in “Seymour Stein,” which condemns the music industry impresario named in its title for daring to try to make the musicians rich and famous. Such dismissiveness blunts the album’s impact. As much joy as its jingle- jangle music holds,the band won’t come to full power until it finds equal breadth and generosity in its words.

Jim Farber

New York Daily News – The Boy With The Arab Strap
September 1998
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[the stars of track and field]
Isabel is sort of laid there, on a bed or a table, I don’t know which, and she fixes me with one of those looks and says “Why didn’t you ask her then?”

I get a bit nervous, I go “What do you mean?” and Isabel says with that exasperated laugh of hers, “You know, why didn’t you ask Jo when you spoke to her at break?”

I’m really nervous now, and am positive I am red (I never used to blush, I think I only started when I became a teacher and was around children all the time), but try to remain composed with a “What are you on about?” To which Isabel goes “Jo Orton “.

Of course I know what she’s on about, and I say “Yes I know what Jo you’re on about” (could it be any other?) “but what am I meant to have asked her?”

Isabel is just giving me a look. Sixteen year olds have so many subtle looks, and I’m really not sure what this one means. Nevertheless, it seems obvious I have to say something more. So I go “Well I did ask her to do extra work for me.” I did, and I blushed then too. “As a favour.”

Isabel has raised herself up and rests her head in her left hand. “I didn’t mean that. I know about that. I want to know why you didn’t ask her what you really wanted to ask her.”

I try to look confused but really all I look like is the startled teenager when he discovers that his closely guarded loves and obsessions were not so closely guarded after all, that all his peers have been laughing for weeks at his inability to make action out of desire.

Isabel just fixes me again in the eyes and says simple as you like “Why didn’t you ask her to go out with you?”

I wake up.

[the boy done wrong again]

Later, I dream that Jo is kissing me. She has her hair down and is wearing pale red lipstick. Her hair drifts between us like a veil and gets caught between our lips. I wake again and want to bawl.

[get me away from here I’m dying]

I read the sleeve notes to “If you’re feeling Sinister” and I go all creepy. I’ve had the CD for ages, but the record shop couldn’t find the cover when I bought it, so it’s only today when I bought that Reuben Wilson LP that Mike goes, “we found that Belle & Sebastian cover upstairs last week.” And there it was. I read the lyrics in the Boston Tea Party coffee house, and I found that I could sing every last one of the buggers in my head, right off. This despite the fact that I had the Beth Orton (no relation) record on my headphones. The latte was sweet, there were only three other people in the big open loft space, and I felt fucking weird. There was a couple who looked about twenty four, they were maybe students. They weren’t talking much, but they were looking at each other a lot. He had a copy of The Guardian open beside him on the beaten brown chesterfield and she was playing with her hair. It was auburn hair. The other customer was a bloke who looked about sixty, he had those funny half moon specs on, and a cardigan. A grey cardigan with a hole in the left elbow. He was reading a collection of Rilke poems and sipping what looked like an espresso.

But I was feeling fucking weird, reading these lyrics and sleeve notes. Something about Casuals in Dalry. That was bloody scary. Reading that, it was bloody scary. I used to travel through Dalry all the time, on the train, on my bike. Never stopped unless I could help it. Only once, to get chocolate after coming over the moor road from Largs, which is on the coast. Oh and once in the station coming back from Paisley where two drunk women touched me and Scott up in the Bakery. Digby had to catch a train home to get to evening work in the South Beach gardens, but it never helped because the train we got on went to Stevenston instead, so we still had to ride home from there. At least we never paid. Scott died in a car crash two years later and Digby got lost taking pictures in London last I heard. Not that that’s of much interest to anyone of course.

[me and the major]

Belle & Sebastian are in the Face magazine this month. They get the kind of smirkingly flattering attention that other non-trad-rock groups get in the Face. They get begrudging attention because someone suspects that Belle & Sebastian may well be the best group to have strolled nonchalantly up the avenue of British Pop since some bloke in a big blouse wafted out of Manchester waving a bunch of gladioli. They’d be right too. Shame they have to couch their admiration in cheap shots about anoraks.

Do Belle & Sebastian wear anoraks? Does anyone wear an anorak these days, and if they do, do they wear anoraks without a due sense or irony and a truck-load of nail-polish?

[if you’re feeling sinister]

Deliver flowers to a house by hand at five in the morning and give them to the father who opens the door in his dressing gown. Embrace the romance in the river’s colour on a March morning and in the breath of air that blows over your cheek as you stand on the top of the car park tower and gaze over the city. On expeditions to the roof of the world, dancing and eating ice creams laced with tequila. Kissing in back of the multiplex, watching Frank Sinatra double bills and strolling home laughing at comets.

I’m making it all up.

Belle & Sebastian are the prettiest poets this land has to offer us, and we’d all be either dim, dumb or dubious to ignore this fact. Carve their names on your arms with your fountain pens.

[judy and the dream of horses]

Someone somewhere is playing the Velvet Underground on a portable cassette player in the sun. Snow is on the ground. They really do think of horses all the time you know.

Alistair Fitchett

Tangents Ezine – If You’re Feeling Sinister
March 1997
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It’s that time of year again. The nights are drawing in. Department store wage slaves in reindeer horns wander the tinsel-lined halls listlessly. Kids pressure ashen-faced parents into shelling out on overpriced slabs of moulded plastic. And as the commercial beast that is the festive season grinds into life, masking its ravenous greed behind the cheery mask of goodwill to all men, the shelves begin to heave under thousands of tons of soulless seasonal blackmail. Buy me, Scrooge, screams every devilish festive charm. BUY ME.
So to ‘XFM – It’s A Cool, Cool Christmas’: a Christmas record and, oh yes, a charidee record. You’re forgiven if those finely-honed instincts scream ‘destroy’.   But wait – this is more than just a convenient way of relieving guilt in one cheap spurt of benevolence. Inspired by the spellbinding grace of Low’s ‘Christmas’ LP, compiled by the folks at London alternative radio station XFM, and with all proceeds going straight back to the streets via The Big Issue, this record comes as highly recommended as charity records can;  that is, it’s actually worth owning.
The real strength of ‘….Cool, Cool Christmas’ lies not in its supposed credibility but in the broadness of its palette. After all, how many Christmas compilations could get away with fielding a song as splendidly named as Giant Sand’s, ‘Thank You Dreaded Black Ice, Thank You’, or spin off on a perversely Hawaiian tip, as does Morgan’s ‘Christmas in Waikiki’? As one might expect, this eclecticism leads to a jumbled, often playful stocking; certainly, Grandaddy seem well aware of the shameless novelty that pervades this genre, kicking off the album with ‘Alan Parsons In A Winter Wonderland’ – all bubbling synths and parping electronics, a tongue-in-cheek dedication to the prog-wizard himself. Even Eels seem to be having the time of their life, as they scissor-kick their way through the spirited ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Cool This Christmas’.
Beneath the brightly-coloured wrapping paper, though, ‘…Cool, Cool Christmas’ fields actual content: Stuart Murdoch takes to the church pews on Belle & Sebastian’s quite lovely take on ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ and Six by Seven’s hissed sarcastic ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’ is the ultimate ‘Bah! Humbug!’ moment, nestled under the tree like a gift-wrapped bomb.
The only real disappointment is The Flaming Lips’ take on ‘White Christmas (Demo For Tom Waits)’. Were the Lips to record an entirely straight version of ‘White Christmas’, a la their live rendition of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’. They’d have recorded the greatest surefire Christmas Number One ever. Alas, this version’s a little too echo-laden and Therein-heavy to hold out much hope of toppling Sir Cliff. Still, we can dream.
A mixed sack, then, but in the spirit of the season, there’s something for everyone.   ‘XFM-It’s A Cool, Cool Christmas’ might be a novelty, but it’s not one you’ll regret by Boxing Day.

Louis Pattison

NME – It’s A Cool Cool Christmas
December 2000