Playing God
Belle & Sebastian: The Boy With The Arab Strap

there are some who probably feel that this particular Playing God deserves a disclaimer, much as Andrew Unterberger's excellent Loveless piece did, saying that no disrespect is intended to an excellent album. Others would claim that The Boy With The Arab Strap is in dire need of a makeover. And then of course, there's those that contend that Stuart Murdoch and co. have been falling off ever since Tigermilk. And all those are just factions of B&S; fans, never mind what most people (who have either never heard of them or haven't given them a chance) think.

Personally, I skew towards the first group myself. As a B&S; fan I'm pretty uncritical; I thought barring one or two songs Fold Your Hands Child You Walk Like A Peasant was actually one of the finest records of the year, and I thought Storytelling would have been, stripped of all instrumentals except 'Fuck That Shit', an excellent EP.

But there's another problem with messing around with The Boy With The Arab Strap, no matter how you feel about it. My source material for this Playing God was, in addition to the original album, the four EPs released in roughly the year before The Boy With The Arab Strap's release (the three collected in the Lazy Line Painter Jane set plus This Is Just A Modern Rock Song). What I want to make sure I don't imply is that the album would have been 'better' if they hadn't released those EPs. I love B&S;'s penchant for releasing singles and EPs with all non-album material on it. I certainly don't want them to stop. But imagine if for some reason Stuart Murdoch hadn't released any of that fertile period at the time, and instead had compiled the best of it all into a massive double (if on vinyl) album. That's what this Playing God is.

01. Lazy Line Painter Jane (5:50, from Lazy Line Painter Jane EP)
Given that this was, in many ways, one of the most fertile periods for Murdoch's songwriting, not to mention quite diverse, we start off with a curveball to forestall the complaints of rehashed If You're Feeling Sinisterisms. Based around one of the best organ riffs in recent memory and stellar guest vocals from Monica Queen, this one nails that special bittersweet feel of the best Belle & Sebastian songs and hammers it out of the park. It also contains one of my favorite Stuart Murdoch couplets ("being a rebel is fine/but you go all the way to being brutal"). A rousing and joyous opener.

02. Le Pastie De La Bourgeosie (3:10, from 3.. 6.. 9.. Seconds Of Light EP)
Just to continue wrongfooting the cautious listener, we now haul out one of the best songs from the period, and also quite rare in its hard-driving nature. A stripped down rock song, 'Le Pastie De La Bourgeosie' boasts one of the best closing refrains ever, and even references Judy Blume midway through. The title, incidentally, does not translate out of French (God bless the Canadian education system) but is apparently supposed to mean "The apathy of the middle class".

03. Ease Your Feet Into The Sea (3:35, album track)
But that doesn't mean we don't want some of Belle & Sebastian's 'classic' feel to the album. One of the things I loved about the original, was its summer feel. In fact, to get all personal, I can't hear this song without having warm memories of taking my dog down to the beach by my dad's house. Laid back for much of its duration, the song ends on a bit of a darker note, which leads us into the next song perfectly.

04. The Gate (4:31, from This Is Just A Modern Rock Song EP)
One of the points where I may diverge from most fans of the original album is my dislike of 'Is It Wicked Not To Care', which I can't entirely explain. So I won't. Instead, take the real Isobel Campbell-sung (or at least, I presume it's her) gem of the era, equally summery in feel but just slightly less twee.

05. A Summer Wasting (2:06, album track)
Ending our summery triptych, we get this perfect evocation of those summers where you don't really do much, by design rather than neglect. A short, oddly swinging track, it ends abruptly, leading into our title track.

06. The Boy With The Arab Strap (5:14, album track)
The key to this song is that rollicking keyboard, handclap and drum line that underpins the whole track up until the quiet coda. There's no real chorus see, as the whole thing is so infectious. Already in classic in real life, so not much more to say about it.

07. Beautiful (5:10, from 3.. 6.. 9.. Seconds Of Light EP)
One of Belle & Sebastian's best ballads from this era, 'Beautiful' concerns a sick girl named Lisa who wears orthopedic shoes and the joy of pornography. The end continues to rise in volume and intensity, repeating the line "they let Lisa go blind". Here, the intensity is once again regained, leading directly into the innocuous pop of “Photo Jenny”.

08. Photo Jenny (3:15, from Lazy Line Painter Jane EP)
Another quick poppy one with pleasantly neurotic lyrics from Murdoch, highlighted by the chorus' "They got the drugs I could use but then I don't need any". A bit of a break after the seriousness of 'Beautiful', but upbeat and leading nicely into the next track.

09. Seymour Stein (4:42, album track)
I like Stevie Jackson's songs. Apparently some people don't, but I don't see how you can hear a charmer like 'Seymour Stein' and not fall in love. In addition to having, in the reasoned opinions of my colleagues Gentry Boeckel and Todd Hutlock, one of the best Smiths references in recorded music, this is just lovely. A sadly drifting melody, and a combined ode to a girl and a record executive.

10. Dirty Dream Number Two (4:14, album track)
We're beginning to enter the end of the album now, and what better to wake us from the daydream of 'Seymour Stein' than this one, full of bright strings and an upbeat feel. Another classic of the era and perhaps my favorite song on the original album.

11. Slow Grafitti (3:24, from This Is Just A Modern Rock Song EP)
But this is my favorite Belle & Sebastian song, maybe ever. Part of it was the time in my life when I'd listen to it, but part of it is just the song, that wonderful guitar part, a plethora of great lines ("It doesn't matter what I'm thinking/What I tell myself to do/I'll end up calling", "Listen Johnny/You're like a mother/To the girl you've fallen for/And you're still falling") and that special ineffable something that helps to make this just a great, great song. It alone would be worth chasing this EP down for.

12. A Century Of Fakers (4:30, from 3.. 6.. 9.. Seconds Of Light EP)
Again, after the relative seriousness of 'Slow Grafitti' something a bit more flippant to break things up. Given that I'm trying to write about the cream of the crop from a really amazing period for Belle & Sebastian, it's hard to say much about this one other than that it's great, and sort of mean-spirited in the way only Murdoch can be.

13. Simple Things (1:46, album track)
As in the original album, 'Simple Things' is here to serve as a quick intro to the end of the album. But whereas on the original that was one song, here it's three. I do that a lot, for some reason. Starts out muted, builds to a crash.

14. Sleep The Clock Around (4:58, album track)
There are three songs from this era I'd like to see as the all-important final track, but, as in Highlander, There Can Be Only One. 'Sleep The Clock Around' could have gotten the nod for that great, bagpipe-fuelled ending, but it works just as well here, as the beginning of the end. "Now the trouble is over, everybody got paid/Everybody is happy, they are glad that they came/Then you go to the place where you've finally found/You can look at yourself sleep the clock around" Why this was ever the second track I don't know.

15. This Is Just A Modern Rock Song (7:17, from This Is Just A Modern Rock Song EP)
Maybe the most epic thing Belle & Sebastian will ever produce. The actual story isn't that important, just the sprawl and the feel and "I'm only lucid when I'm writing songs" and "This is just a modern rock song/This is just a sorry lament". The sound, figuratively speaking, of bedsit Ragnarock.

16. You Made My Forget My Dreams (3:52, from Lazy Line Painter Jane EP)
The quiet finale. The morning after. "You made me forget my dreams/When I woke up to you sleeping/We had peace for a night at least/But the trouble starts today" Ends with "I think I'd better make amends" and a squall of electronics. Beautiful.

Total: 64:36

By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2003-12-16
Comments (1)

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