Belle & Sebastian
If You're Feeling Sinister
(The Enclave 56713)

A major problem with both American and British music magazines is their tendency to overhype new bands. England is an especially notorious offender, as it seems every month there's a new Super Furry Animals or Embrace or Ash or fill-in-the-blank snotty wannabe rock star band getting next-big-thing plaudits.

This is nothing new. Curiously, the understated Belle & Sebastian seemed to get more hype Stateside than in their homeland. Who to believe?

Who cares, the album is wonderful. The wonderfully titled "The Stars of Track and Field" opens, slow-brewing, building to a fine acoustic crescendo, with some subtle and effective electric guitar tremelo added to thoughtful and clever lyrics. This is followed by the even better "Seeing Other People," which recalls Vince Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy" without being obvious or annoying, and continues the pattern that remains throughout of matching bright, well-arranged instrumentation to smart, well-conceived lyrics. The music is usually closer to Donovan, less maudlin than Nick Drake, although the title song could fit well on Bryter Later.

But Belle and Sebastian are definitely their own band; there's no need for them to be held down by being referenced to others, no matter how complimentary, or no matter how much they do their own referencing (as in the lovely "Like Dylan in the Movies"). Belle and Sebastian are a rare band in the post-cynical post-nineties; they seem to do everything in the service of the song, their writing is tight, effective, and often joyous (see "Judy and the Dream of Horses"), and they balk at media hype.

Sinister is an album that gets better with each listen. It's pure, personal music created independent from any identifiable trend – Stuart Murdoch's super-sensitive songwriting and fragile, beautiful voice seem to have emerged from a vacuum, and this is bound to remain his finest offering. Even the tracks on this CD that seem to be intentional "album tracks" ("Fox in the Snow," "The Boy Done Wrong Again") only bolster the notion that Belle & Sebastian are savvy record-makers. They definitely know their way around a track listing, peppering the sublimist pleasures amid the subtler moments to force the listener to really hear what's going on. You end up intrigued, returning to the album again and again to discover what else is there.

And there's lots there. "Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying" is something of a statement of purpose ("Nobody writes 'em like they used to, so it may as well be me"), defining the group's willful naievty and noble adherence to a musical path that's been all but obliterated in the past 25 years. Who'd have thought that one of the best groups to appear in the 90s would be coming from the same stream as Neil Diamond, Morrissey, and The Beautiful South – yet be more original in their derivitaveness than any of those singular voices? They're bound to implode like some beautiful, obscure supernova, but at the very least they will have left behind the confident near-perfection of this one brilliant record.

Review by HIP & DEF