Monday, April 13, 2009

Laid Off Loser Album of the Day: "Push Barman to Open Old Wounds"

In college, Belle and Sebastian were my Smiths. Once I had heard The Boy with the Arab Strap, each new release — be it a full-length, reissue or one of the Scottish band's numerous EPs and singles — was consumed with religious fervor behind a closed bedroom door. Every genuine music fan, at least once, is bitch-slapped by a band as I was by Belle and Sebastian. I took the hit like a man and asked for more.

One crisp, late-Autumn day in 1998, while sulking across the college green, I noticed a mousy-looking girl walking a few feet in front of me. It wasn't so much the mousy-looking girl that caught my eye but what she was holding in her left hand: The Boy with the Arab Strap. My heart fluttered. At the time, I didn't know anyone, let alone a girl, who was into Belle and Sebastian. My girlfriend, who went to school 75 miles away, considered Vince Gill and Garth Brooks forward-thinking musicians (we had irreconcilable differences, to say the least).

There on the college green, for a freeze-frame second, the mousy-looking girl held in her hand the answer to all my problems. In a perfect world, by nightfall we would have been in bed together listening to "Seymour Stein" on repeat, holding each other in a disgusting display of pre-emo codependence. But what I did next — absolutely nothing — was typical of a spineless 21-year-old who wore baggy clothes to hide his bad parts.

I never did see that girl's face, but a few months later our chance non-encounter was indirectly responsible for the best move I had made to that point in the amateur chess game that was my life: breaking up with my soul-sucking, spirit-breaking, country-music-listening girlfriend.

As therapy, I rewarded myself with one of the most self-indulgent record-buying binges in my record-buying life — import vinyl copies of Belle and Sebastian's first four EPs: Dog on Wheels, Lazy Line Painter Jane, 3.. 6.. 9 Seconds of Light and This is Just a Modern Rock Song. Those EPs, along with three singles Belle and Sebastian released between 2000 and 2001, are collected on Push Barman to Open Old Wounds.

An update of 2000's Lazy Line Painter Jane box set, which grouped the first three hard-to-find EPs, the 25 tracks on Push chart the in-betweens of Belle and Sebastian's career from 1997's Dog on Wheels — released mere months after If You're Feeling Sinister — up through 2001's I'm Waking Up to Us, one of two EPs bookended by Fold Your Hands Child, You Look Like a Peasant and the Storytelling soundtrack. Like Stuart Murdoch's beloved Smiths, each EP features singles and b-sides unavailable on the band's full-lengths. The original releases came dressed in intricately-designed sleeves with color-washed photos, short stories and information on the "cover stars" — very Morrissey, indeed.

Push represents Belle and Sebastian at the top of their game, a period of time, particularly at the start of their career, when it seemed they could do no wrong. In the span of 12 months beginning October 1996, they released Sinister — arguably their masterpiece — and the three essential EPs comprising the first half of this collection.

Laced with mariachi horns, "Dog on Wheels" recalls Forever Changes-era Love, while the demo of "The State I Am In" — superior, in its simplicity, to the Tigermilk version — is as good an example of Murdoch's wry wit as anything in the band's catalog. The semi-autobiographical "Belle and Sebastian" is a de facto theme song for the band and its generally bookish, navel-gazing fan base.

The Lazy Line Painter Jane EP displays Belle and Sebastian's lesser-known influences — the northern soul of the title track, the thumping techno coda that ends the otherwise mellow piano ballad "You Made Me Forget My Dreams." 3 .. 6.. 9 revisits the Dog on Wheels template of literary folk-rock, with its standout, the relatively muscular "Le Pastie de la Bourgeoisie," referencing Kerouac, Salinger and Judy Blume to paint a portrait of the song's loner heroine.

The second half kicks off with 1998's "This is Just a Modern Rock Song," which, like many tracks on The Boy with the Arab Strap, finds the band using its unexpected fame as songwriting fodder.

On the Legal Man single, the band's first release of the new millennium, Belle and Sebastian come dangerously close to self-parody but still pull off infectious, even danceable pop. This trend continues with Jonathan David, which, like Legal Man, backs an up-tempo single with more traditional fare like the string-laden "Take Your Carriage Clock and Shove It" and the first appearance on record of longtime concert favorite "The Loneliness of the Middle Distance Runner."

The latter was the theme song to my own private 2002, a year that, more than any other, signified the death of past lives and the birth of new ones as I continued my awkward waltz into adulthood. Belle and Sebastian, with frequent lineup changes, have experienced similar growing pains, and their recent work — though not without its merits — lacks the punch of their early output. But Push is a near-perfect snapshot of a near-perfect time in the career of one of indie rock's brightest and best.

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