Indie pop outfit Belle and Sebastian have returned 3 years on from their last outing, 2010’s Write About Love, with a new compilation of outtakes and rarities titled after a defunct centre for art in the group’s native Glasgow that some of band members used to frequent. Originally conceived around songwriter-in-chief Stuart Murdoch, in the mid-nineties, the tracks collected here, from 2002 to 2010, mark the time since the band signed to Rough Trade.
While Murdoch is unquestionably the leader of Belle and Sebastian as well as being a true storyteller with rare ability that comes about but once in a generation, the years documented on The Third Eye Centre have seen the group become more of a band in the truest sense of the word, or at the very least more of a band than similar groups based around the songwriting talent of one individual like Eels or The Magnetic Fields. Where other groups are concerned B-sides are often reserved for excruciating occasions to allow, for example, the drummer to get behind the mic however, now, with everyone contributing to the writing process along with occasional vocal turns from multi-instrumentalist Sarah Martin and guitarist Stevie Jackson, the notion of that occurring with this lot is thankfully redundant.
If it seems oddly fitting that a collection of art school misfits should release an entire album of misfit songs, well it’s probably because Belle and Sebastian have previous at this sort of thing. Their last such collection, 2005’s Push Barman to Open Old Wounds, is as indispensable as the rest of their early catalogue collecting several EPs and non-album tracks released on their previous label, Jeepster Records. Crucially for the time period this release covers, the band chose to release singles from their albums whereas in the past they had refused, like an indie Led Zeppelin, which is probably the first time those two bands have ever been used in the same sentence. This means that the vast majority of the B-sides have been available to fans willing to hunt down each of the individual releases. That’s something you wouldn’t put past Belle and Sebastian fans who are a quite dedicated bunch and will probably buy this record even if they already own its contents in one format or another. It’s testament to Belle and Sebastian’s appreciation for their fanbase that this album exists at all and at a decent price too saving you the time and expense of tracking the songs down. Stuart Murdoch even said to the NME recently that they feel “whatever record we make, some people will be interested to hear it” though to their credit, they haven’t exploited that relationship, though even the diehards will find it hard to say that this is on a par with Push Barman…
The quality on offer varies spectacularly, as does the sound of the band, from the bluesy Last Trip to the sugary sweetness of Richard X’s remix of I Didn’t See It Coming. The latter originally opened Write About Love but here is transformed into terrific Pet Shop Boys-style dance pop aimed straight at the dancefloor. Too often however, the band reverts to type and songs that begin with promise end up sounding all too familiar. Such is the case on Love on the March, which has all the samba swagger combined with lounge singer cheesiness of the Super Furry Animals but none of that group’s giddy zaniness to really take it out of Belle and Sebastian’s comfort zone. Highlights Suicide Girl and The Life Pursuit fit neatly in that zone and are closest to the sound they’ve sought in the studio with producers Tony Hoffer and The Buggles’ Trevor Horn, with echoes of seventies New Wave groups like The Buzzcocks and The Stranglers. It’s a pity that they haven’t yet quite got the knack for a perfect breakneck three minute pop nugget like so many groups of that era had, to be able to capture a lightning-in-a-bottle moment like a Teenage Kicks or a Turning Japanese. Then again, there are few groups able to do that.
The Third Eye Centre is sadly filled with too many lightweight moments to be considered an essential part of Belle and Sebastian’s oeuvre. Passion Fruit is a brief instrumental riff on the Shadows signature sound that could be the soundtrack to some dreary seventies cop show like The Persuaders! It would be a travesty however if standout tracks like Desperation Made a Fool of Me and the previously unreleased Miaoux Miaoux remix of Your Cover’s Blown had remained available only as a B-side to a long-deleted single or worse yet, left on somebody’s hard drive. Desperation… strives for the same wistful elegance of the title track to the group’s undisputed masterpiece If You’re Feeling Sinister, with gorgeous piano lines and the kind of lyric that paints Murdoch’s vision of Scottish life as inseperable from the wistful innocence of Gregory’s Girl. At the other end of the scale entirely, the remixed Your Cover’s Blown rather shockingly transforms the group into an amazing fusion of Boney M. and 10cc, with kitsch laser noises, thick bass and an irresistible Italo-disco groove.
However sometimes rewarding, often frustrating but mostly underwhelming this compilation may well be, what’s obvious is that B-sides themselves are a dying art form and in this digital era, the more throwaway remixes and the so-called “bonus track” are their replacement. It’s not an entirely popular shift, often deluxe editions of albums will cost up to 50% more than the standard edition for a measly two extra tracks. One need only look at how many different versions of Ellie Goulding’s recent Halcyon Days re-release you need to buy in order to get all the available tracks to see that this is clearly an enormously profitable racket for major labels. As a gesture to their fans, and as a landmark in the history of the band, you really can’t argue with Belle and Sebastian’s decision to put out an affordable 19 track album collecting all their odd and sods together even if on the face of it, it doesn’t live up to the high standards they’ve set for themselves.
In years to come, this collection alongside Push Barman… and their studio albums will serve to remind people down the line just how good Belle and Sebastian are to newcomers just as similar collections have served the legacy of bands like The Smiths and Suede. The Third Eye Centre may not be representative of the band’s best work or a particularly good place to start, but ask any fan and they’ll say that to discount any of their material would be your loss.