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Belle & Sebastian - Twee Indie Pop Masters


REC – “The Garden” (from Sympathy for the Weird)

Welcome to WEEK 267 of MUSIC is not a GENRE (Video #93 & S4Ep38)

Belle & Sebastian – When QUIET Was the REVOLUTION

Everything is part of a cycle. Macro, Micro, Nano, Epochal. Even if it seems something is brand new never-been-done, guaranteed it’s an echo of something else. That’s partly because nothing is created in a vacuum. New works – even ones so bracingly new they blow your head back – are always influenced by old. Every attention-grabbing shift & movement is a response to something that came before. Complex gives way to simple. So-called “high art” gives way to so-called “low art” (distinctions I always dispute but which are useful here). Brash & confrontational gives way to soft & inviting. Sarcasm & nihilism give way to sincerity & faith. And while each iteration of the cycle is different and almost always a step forward, we’re wise to look back for perspective & context, so we can better understand what’s being done & why. It makes the seemingly unfamiliar & possibly offensive feel closer to our experience & thus more inviting.

You can trace the cycle of influence & response back to the first time a humanoid repeatedly hit an object with a bone, or made a sound that was useful to make again & again. Let’s not do that here. That’s what I’d call the “$50,000 version” of this podcast. A quicker illustration goes like this:

PUNK – a stripped down response to the complexity & bombast of progressive & classic rock

HAIR METAL – a melding of punk, metal & glam intended to poke a hole in the straight-edged seriousness of punk

GRUNGE – a stripped down, beefed up and more personal & inclusive response to the excesses & overt misogyny of hair metal

TWEE INDIE POP & POST ROCK – a quiet, seemingly more contemplative & less guitar driven response to the moshfest of grunge

Now, all of this is simplified & very qualified. These kinds of music existed for more reasons than just as responses to what came before, whether socio-political or purely artistic. And their influences were more far-ranging than just “we don’t want to do what they did”. Punk was in many ways a return to the 3- & 4-chord 1950s pop rock AND the 1960s garage rock movement. Hair metal was, as stated, a descendant of glam, but also very blues based, unlike the more classical/progressive based metal of earlier bands. Grunge took a lot from the 1970s – including the relatively flat, midrange EQ. And the grunge counter-response that included twee & post-rock consisted of strains that had been around as long as grunge, and influences that had been around even longer.

And this is where this week’s band comes in. Belle & Sebastian are a 1960s AND 1980s influenced indie pop band from Glasgow. They were carrying on traditions set forth by bands like The Zombies AND The Smiths. Their lyrics are often literary & intellectual – very college-y, and also often very personal. You could say that about quite a bit of grunge lyrics too, but that’s not what grunge was ever known for. When you listen to twee indie pop & grunge back to back, it’s like the aural difference between inviting you into a basement of cloistered suffering or a living room of barely tolerable ennui. Both speak of personal struggle, but in very different ways. Where grunge went out of its way to shock and slam you, twee music tried to be as quiet & unassuming as possible. And both were utterly captivating.

If you were sentient enough to have experienced & absorbed music in the 1990s, you’ll remember how shocking BOTH kinds of music were. Grunge tore apart the artifice of hair metal. (It would eventually take on its own artifice, but that’s part of the … say it with me … CYCLE.) And twee music quietly dismantled the posturing of grunge. Any music lover living & breathing enough to want the full music/life experience always needs an antidote, a new favorite thing to temper the obsession & self-involvement of listening to only one kind of music.

Belle & Sebastian (and of the post-rock strain, a band like The Sea & Cake) was the grunge antidote for me. When I first heard them, I was truly shocked that a band would have the nerve to be that quiet amidst all the noise. They drew me in, like a caretaker telling stories while you’re swathed in a warm blanket. Sure, part of it was also that they reminded me of 1960s chamber pop & 1980s bands like The Smiths. But like I said, this iteration of those cycles had a new context, which gave me new perspective.

And they did influence my music. Prior to hearing them, I was absolutely on the grunge/modern rock train. After they (and other similar bands) came along, I infused much of my next releases with more “sonic sensitivity”. I wasn’t as afraid to get soft. Most long-term artists worth anything have their own cycles – like actors, doing one project to stretch & experiment and one for the fans. My albums have tended to shift from concise power pop to more sprawling & ambient collections. What was fun about The Weird Objective’s five albums is I could do ALL of it. And for Sympathy for the Weird, there’s no question I had Belle & Sebastian on my mind, especially for this song:

REC – “The Garden” (from Sympathy for the Weird)

Were you into Belle & Sebastian? Do you remember their counter-non-punch impact the way I do? Were there other quiet bands of that era that had the same impact on you? What do you think of Belle & Sebastian’s new album, A Bit of Previous? Discuss dammit!


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