Sharps & flats

Pastoral pop group Belle and Sebastian finally re-release their out-of-print debut "Tigermilk," a copy of which once sold for $1,200. The excellent disc is worth the long wait, if not the inflated auction price.

Published July 15, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Just how desirable is Belle and Sebastian's "Tigermilk?" Let's put it this way: Last year, a copy of it sold at auction for roughly $1,200. We're talking about a vinyl LP released just over three years ago, produced as a class project by a music-business course at Glasgow's Stow College, and released on its Electric Honey label in an edition of 1,000 copies. It seemed like a pretty unlikely collector's item at the time. By the end of 1996, though, Belle and Sebastian had released their follow-up, "If You're Feeling Sinister," and the Scottish pop band's international cult had boomed, and the race to find the ultra-rare "Tigermilk" was on. There are tapes of tapes of tapes of the album, lovingly passed from one fan to another; there are CD bootlegs of it that have been making the rounds; and now it's finally been reissued in this legitimate edition.

Is it worth all the fuss? Well ... yes, actually. "Tigermilk" isn't quite the organic masterpiece that "Sinister" is, but it's got some extraordinary songwriting. Songwriter/guitarist Stuart Murdoch's aesthetic sprang forth fully formed. As a paragon of the album-one-side-one-track-one this-is-who-I-am song, "The State I Am In" belongs right up there with Patti Smith's "Gloria." Further on, the album's lyrics are concerned with misfit youth "making life-size models of the Velvet Underground in clay," and the awkward tremblings of early love.

The lyrics also examine the great unifying experience of education: Six of 10 songs mention school. But songwriter/guitarist Stuart Murdoch was a little older than the characters he was writing about at the time, and he had some perspective. Starting a song, "My wandering days are over/Does that mean that I'm getting boring?/You tell me," on your first record suggests that you know exactly what you're doing. In fact, close attention to "Tigermilk" brings out more details of Murdoch's master plan: the way he develops characters by accruing incidental details, his narrator's appearances and disappearances, his low-key jokes ("So I gave myself to God/There was a pregnant pause before He said OK"), his intertextual games. The title of "The State I Am In" turns out to be a novel that a priest writes after hearing the speaker's confession; by the end of the album, another character is reading it.

If all "Tigermilk" had going for it was its words, it'd still be pretty solid -- on the level of a good Ron Sexsmith or Vic Chesnutt album. The music, though, launches those words heavenward. Belle and Sebastian's lithe, light-fingered arrangements, augmented with strings and a bit of trumpet, and especially Murdoch's tender but careful enunciation, recall Nick Drake and Donovan, and there's a bit of the Smiths in their artful guitar gymnastics and renunciation of direct force. ("Electronic Renaissance," in the middle of the album, is a curious bit of bleached-out Pet Shop Boys pastiche; they haven't tried anything like it since.) "Tigermilk" represents the apotheosis of a certain strain of British pop that's gentle to the point of wimpiness, nurtured through the '80s and '90s by bands with tiny cults like Felt and Talulah Gosh and the Field Mice, as well as Belle and Sebastian's Glasgow hometown heroes the Pastels. What that strain had been waiting for was somebody with a sense of tune like Murdoch's -- for sheer catchiness, these songs rival "Barbie Girl." Like the characters in their songs, Belle and Sebastian played the part of wise children, sure-handed but restrained, just on the cusp of understanding their own power.

By Douglas Wolk

Douglas Wolk is the author of the books "Reading Comics" and "James Brown's Live at the Apollo," and has contributed to a variety of periodicals, including The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, and The Believer.

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