Belle & Sebastian
(Jeepster/Matador 361)

Belle & Sebastian's first album, recorded for a school project and released in an extremely limited edition in 1996, is now available on CD, a fact the band seems to be ambivalent about – in fact, they seem to be ambivalent regarding the idea that anyone listens to their music at all. For awhile, you could only get the album on fourth or fifth generation tapes or shoddy bootlegs, so it's nice to have the material in good quality, though if they'd never released it on CD, I'd undoubtedly have been happy to listen to my fourth or fifth generation tape copy, 'cuz the songs is so good.

The disc opens with the original version of "The State I Am In," not as good as the version on the Dog on Wheels EP, but very fine and certainly one of the most audacious first songs on anyone's first album ever. Considering the musical climate in 1996, you can't help but wonder how a band had the gumption to get together and make such knowingly wimpy music, but however it happened, be thankful that these Scottish prep school kids bothered to make a record at all. It seems like they would have been content to play church basements for a couple years and then call it quits and get to some manner of jobs.

Tigermilk is not as accomplished as the follow-up (and first album 99% of the world heard by them) If You're Feeling Sinister, though it's much more solid than the third one (The Boy With the Arab Strap). Any album boasting the super-pop of "She's Losing It" is bound to not drop the ball – it'd be hard to have a song that good and have most of the surrounding songs be less than interesting. Actually, this disc is more experimental than any of their other stuff – "Electronic Renaissance" is a New Order-like track that sounds very unlike the typical B&S song. Synths have kicked all the acoustic instruments out of the studio and won't let 'em back in, yet melodically it's very much in Stuart Murdoch's trademark style.

Some of the tracks on Side 2 are a bit lesser ("I Don't Love Anyone" and the flute-driven "Mary Jo"), but when I think about it, I wouldn't actually change it – B&S are so pure in their creation that I have to respect all the songs, even when they're not up to the level of "She's Losing It" or most of Sinister. "We Rule the School," here, is kind of a dress rehearsal for "Fox in the Snow" on Sinister, but despite the similarity, it's almost painfully beautiful and melancholy. "My Wandering Days Are Over" is another "typical B&S" song, though when I'm listening to it, there's nowhere I'd rather be.

This is a stunner of a debut, especially if you're familiar with If You're Feeling Sinister and you can see where things are headed. It's by no means a perfect album – perhaps a bit self-indulgent, or samey-sounding, but with its gloriously simple strings and trumpet lines, acoustic guitars, piano, and Stuart's spookily gorgeous voice and encypted lyrical autobiography, Tigermilk is like a very shy person you really need to get to know.

Review by Doyle Bronson