Wednesday, 14 January 2009

The BBC Sessions

Belle and Sebastian - The BBC Sessions
released 17 November 2008 on Jeepster

God bless the BBC. Sure, it can be argued that they’ve inflicted My Family and George Lamb upon us, but by the same token, they’ve also gifted us The Day Today and the shows of John Peel. Talking of the great man, The BBC Sessions is dedicated to the memory of everybody’s favourite verbose DJ. The final four songs on this collection are from a Peel session (as well as being previously unreleased) and prove to be the climax to a fascinating document charting the growth of a much-loved yet critically underrated band.

Starting with a Mark Radcliffe session from 1996, Belle and Sebastian are more confident and assured at the beginning of their career than you may remember. The band are practically note perfect, with Judy and the Dream of Horses in particular proving Stuart Murdoch’s often-repeated point that the production on If You’re Feeling Sinister didn’t do it justice.

As the album progresses, B&S grow in confidence and stature, becoming more like the crafters of immaculate pop tunes that we know today with every song. The crashing symbols and fine guitar flourishes on Seymour Stein show a band comfortable with who they are. Hell, they’re even cavalier enough to interfere with arguably the finest single in their back catalogue, Lazy Line Painter Jane. Unfortunately, it proves to be a wrong move, lacking the immediacy of the original and having a rather forced-sounding climax.

For the biggest fans of the band, the real selling point of this album is the tracks from the aforementioned Peel session. These showcase the direction Belle and Sebastian were heading on the run-up to their most recent album, The Life Pursuit; chiming guitars with a hint of swaggering funk. The Go-Betweens referencing Shoot the Sexual Athlete being the most surprising for anyone who still thinks of Belle and Sebastian as the none-more-indie charming shambles who created Tigermilk.

The second disc is taken from a 2001 concert, where the band rattle through the more energetic numbers in their repertoire while awkwardly interacting with an audience content to do little else but scream. Covers of Here Comes the Sun, Waiting for the Man and The Boys are Back in Town tell us little we didn’t already know; that these are classic pop songs which don’t need anything adding. However, it’s well worth listening to with an all-singing, all-dancing Boy with the Arab Strap proving the highlight.

So, this may not be a must-have and it’s not going to make many end of year best-of lists but that’s always been the Belle and Sebastian way. A sad footnote is the fact that Isobel Campbell left shortly after these recordings and given her sterling work with gravel-voiced Mark Lanegan and Belle and Sebastian’s move to the mainstream, this album also raises the question of what might have been. Still, it’s comforting to know that your £139.50 a year is being put to good use.

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