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The Boy with the Arab Strap

music reviewmusic reviewmusic review  out of 4

All-Reviews.com Music Review: The Boy with the Arab Strap

Artist: Belle and Sebastian
Genre: Rock/Pop
Release Date: September 1998


Review by LarryG
3 stars out of 4

The Boy with the Arab Strap was one of the most compelling records of 1998. The music is delicate and unobtrusive, inviting a closer listen. The lo-fi songs are melodic and enjoyable, but filled with nice subtle touches that usually keep them from just being easy listening. The band is unique in presenting a kind of shyness.  For instance, the CD doesn't credit the members of the band.  The band is actually an eight piece named after the French story of a boy and his dog.  The Beautiful South and the Smiths, in their quieter moments, are perhaps comparable in using the pop song form but not becoming slaves to pop convention and sometimes subverting it, often making songs that sound peaceful but tell disturbing tales.

The album starts with It Could Have Been a Briliant Career which begins at a low volume, as if singer Stuart Murdoch doesn't want to sneak on us and scare us.  As on much of the record, the arrangement is subtle, with quiet keyboards and acoustic guitar and lightly brushed drums, but is still full and satisfying. The lyrics create a vivid image from the start: "(h)e had a stroke at the age of 24, it could  have been a brilliant career" but for Murdoch, the poignancy that could be wrung from that image is too easy and he turns it around by detailing that the brilliant career could have been an empty life of getting financing and "selling lies" The band is never showy but, without rock cliches, still makes fascinating music. Sleep the Clock Around, which has a rapid delivery that reminds me of Robert Palmer's Johnny and Mary, quietly creates a sense of excitement with loopy keyboard effects. The song slowly grows in intensity until the end when the troubled character finds peace of mind. The band stands apart from the rock crowd in presenting themselves as bright, introspective people content to travel the road less traveled. In the beautiful, delicate Is it Wicked Not to Care?, lsobel Campbell sings of not caring if others, with more mundane concerns, criticize. Using the word wicked, besides illustrating the British reserve of the band, shows the distinctive politeness of the band which would be too cute if it didn't seem so sincere. The Boy with the Arab Strap consistently creates clear, real images, often of a dreamy English coutryside. Ease Your Feet in the Sea, with its story of a couple going through a tough time, shows how the band  creates evocative scenes with small details. The acoustic guitar is played quietly but passionately and a violin gives fills out the dreamy atmosphere. Chickfactor has the simple beauty of a Velvet Underground ballad like I'll Be Your Mirror. The cool, modest mood of most of the record is alluring. It also means that when the band picks things up, the joy is real and infectious. Dirty Dream Number Two sticks mostly to acoustic instruments, but picks up the beat and adds strings and horns to create a exuberant Motown feel. The title song similarly tells a sad story but has a pure upbeat 60's sound created with simple retro sounds like a clean organ, hand claps and joyful drums. The album is clearly the work of bright, serious people. Only occasionly do they come across as smart asses. Seymour Stein is a little too cutesy in its story of being more interested in the girl he lost than the record deal that the record executive of the title has to offer.   The Boy with the Arab Strap is a great adult, pop record, one of the best sounding CDs of 1998. It works as background music but merits even more appreciation on closer inspection.

10000031

 


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