Belle & Sebastian

If You're Feeling Sinister: Live at the Barbican

(iTunes; 2005)

By Peter Hepburn | 19 January 2006

For the last few months I've been happily working away as a non-official Matador press lackey, letting anyone even vaguely interested in the subject know how much I was enjoying the forthcoming Belle & Sebastian album The Life Pursuit. These days, though, I approach the subject with a bit more trepidation. Sure, The Life Pursuit is a nice enough album, pushing beyond the mediocrity of Dear Catastrophe Waitress and taking Belle & Sebastian one step farther into happy-go-lucky Scottish pop heaven, but now it just doesn't do it for me. This is no one's fault if not Belle & Sebastian.

Over the last year, Stuart Murdoch and the sallow lads of B&S have been doing seemingly everything in their power to remind the world of the great things they've done. Earlier this year they finally grouped together all those fantastic singles from the late '90s and early '00s into Push Barman to Open Old Wounds and now we get a pitch-perfect live version of the band's finest work, 1996's If You're Feeling Sinister. If this isn't a bad marketing decision, then I don't know what is.

Sure, it's nice that Murdoch has found love and happiness and can make ends meet, but I'll be damned if he isn't a whole lot more boring for it. Dear Catastrophe Waitress, the Legal Man single, and The Life Pursuit show an entirely different sort of B&S than the one that first emerged in Glasgow in '96. That was a band that managed to record and release two classic albums full of existential dread and introverted dreaming within their first year of existence, and followed it up with three brilliant EPs that only the Beta Band managed to surpass in the '90s. This new band is happy, can sing assuredly, and writes songs that involve over-extended and deeply silly metaphors. It's little surprise that most fans still take those first two albums over anything that has come since. Still, many of us have been willing to give this new-found happiness a fair shot, and it seems like, especially after the Books EP that this new incarnation had found wide-spread acceptance.

Now, I don't just spit upon joy, happiness, and well-performed, multi-part harmonies out of hand. They have their place, and The Life Pursuit shows how good B&S are becoming at performing that sort of song. What's off-putting is when this new breed of B&S goes back and takes a shot at IYFS. This new live album fails for two basic reasons: there is little or no positive innovation on the songs and the band seems ill-suited to be performing these songs at this point in their career.

What's first immediately and startlingly clear about this live IYFS is how close B&S stick to the original. Sure, the intro to "The Stars of Track and Field" is even more underwhelming than the original, and the whole thing feels a bit more self-assured and free-wheeling, but there are few if any major differences. If, say, the Magic Numbers had made this record everyone would be disappointed by how little they added to it. This modern B&S is nearly ten years removed from the original, and to have changed so little on the songs, especially considering their stylistic evolution, is a shame. Sure, it's nice that they can now actually play the songs live (it was a stumbling block for awhile there), but to have not moved the songs forward is a waste.

Second, after a few listens it starts to bug you that B&S are performing half these songs. Yeah, it's fun to hear Murdoch belting out "Me and the Major," and "Mayfly" gets a bit more of the punch it was always so desperately in need of (still a lot of drum missing), but for the down-tempo, classically emo/twee songs here, it's jarring to hear this contented bunch of thirty-somethings prattling them off. So much of IYFS was sold on delivery; the depth of feeling behind Murdoch's weak voice, the barely held together group dynamics, the sort of undefinable soul of the tracks. This new B&S just can't pull that off convincingly, leaving "The Fox in the Snow," the title track, and especially the closing duo feeling hollow at best and poorly acted at worst.

It's an almost impossible task trying to live up to the original versions of the IYFS tracks. For many of us out there, that track list to the left is stored deep in our memory, along with a sort of Platonic understanding of the true versions of these songs. There are few cover versions of these songs out there because anybody who's not Stuart Murdoch ends up sounding foolish singing "Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying." If You're Feeling Sinister: Live at the Barbican just shows that these days even Stuart sounds a bit off when he talks about how he always cries at endings.