Happy 20th Anniversary to Belle and Sebastian’s debut album Tigermilk, originally released June 6, 1996.
Confession. I was a few years and three albums late to the game in discovering the unassuming beauty and unequivocal brilliance of Belle and Sebastian’s music.
For my eventual epiphany, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to a charismatic, gregarious gentleman named Tony Kiewel, currently head of A&R at Seattle-based Sub Pop, the revered indie record label arguably best known for releasing Nirvana's 1989 debut album Bleach. Time to rewind the clock nearly eighteen years, back to the summer and fall of 1998. As I embarked upon my final year at UCLA, I had the good fortune of interning for the radio promotion department at Geffen Records in Hollywood (coincidentally, Nirvana's first major record label), and the office was always inundated with promotional CDs of each and every stripe, from each and every label. Tony—the head of Geffen’s college radio promotion at the time—handed me a promo copy of The Boy with The Arab Strap, Belle and Sebastian’s acclaimed third album released in the states via Matador Records in September of 1998, and demanded that I give it a proper listen.
I did, was enthralled right away, and instantly regretted that I hadn’t learned of this endearingly excellent Scottish band a few years earlier. Never too late, I suppose. I can honestly say that I owe a helluva lot to Tony for broadening my musical palette, as in addition to Belle and Sebastian, he introduced my ears to a vast number of stellar indie bands including Low, the Pernice Brothers, and Helium, among many others. And it wasn’t that he simply recommended these bands nonchalantly. No, Tony’s unbridled enthusiasm and genuine love of music compelled me to listen, for fear of missing out on something truly revelatory.
Students in the same dubiously structured musical training course in the mid 1990s, Stuart Murdoch and Stuart Davis were introduced to each other by a mutual friend, and soon thereafter began making and performing music together. Lifting the band’s name from a 1965 French children’s novel and adapted television series, Murdoch (vocals, guitar) and Davis (bass) officially formed Belle and Sebastian in Glasgow in early 1996. As the pair sought to execute their musical vision and refine the song demos they had begun crafting, they expanded the band into an ensemble by recruiting other kindred musical spirits including Isobel Campbell (cello), Richard Colburn (drums), Mick Cooke (trumpet), Chris Geddes (keyboards, piano), Stevie Jackson (guitar), and Joe Togher (violin).
With support from Stow College professor Alan Rankine, who also co-founded the Scottish band The Associates, Belle and Sebastian’s demos were fortuitously shared with Electric Honey, the student and professor-run label managed by way of the music business course at Stow College (later renamed Glasgow Kelvin College). Though Electric Honey traditionally produces and releases one single per year from an aspiring artist, Murdoch, David and crew’s collection of songs were strong enough for the label to make an exception to the rule in favor of shepherding the full album. Recorded in a whirlwind five days, the output became the band’s debut LP, Tigermilk.
Unsure of its commercial viability, Electric Honey cautiously hedged its bets, originally pressing a limited run of just 1,000 copies of the album. Though London’s Jeepster Records would re-release the album to much wider distribution in 1999, the early reception to the album in the spring of 1996 proved tepid at best. “It's funny, you know, because [Tigermilk] became a so-called underground classic and something to get, but that didn't happen for ages,” the self-deprecating Murdoch reflected during a 2003 A.V. Club interview. “I remember taking the records around to the shops to sell. We only made a thousand vinyl copies. We gave away about 400 of the things; the college sent out 400 copies as part of the unit. They had to act like a record company, so they sent copies out to other record companies, and to people in the music business. We only had 600 to sell, and I remember trying to sell the things, and people telling me to slog off. We had a launch party where we tried to give the records away. I had never wanted that goofy old ‘Tigermilk is hard to get’ thing, especially since I remember when we took a copy 'round to the local record shop, and it sat there in the window for the entire summer. I got embarrassed. I was like, ‘My God, we can't even sell a thousand records. We can't even sell 600 records, and there's a copy in the record-store window whose sleeve is getting lighter and lighter.’ Its legendary status didn't come until much later.”
Written entirely by Murdoch, Tigermilk’s ten songs contain autobiographical undertones, but largely play out as stirring fiction, reinforcing his penchant for engrossing, empathetic narratives that typically examine those who have been marginalized in one way or another. The jaunty, cleverly crafted album opener “The State I Am In” is just one of a handful of highlights, in which Murdoch’s protagonist acknowledges his homosexuality (“My brother had confessed that he was gay / It took the heat off me for a while”) and attempts to reconcile the fine line between piety and sin (“So I gave myself to God / There was a pregnant pause before he said ok”).
The endearing, horns-blessed “She’s Losing It” relays the story of a girl who’s had it with men, so she turns her attention and optimism toward women (“She says, ‘Inch for inch and pound for pound / Who needs boys when there's Lisa around?’"). With emotional honesty in droves, the guitar and strings-laden “Expectations” explores the isolation of a schoolgirl who doesn’t quite fit in to her surroundings.
Featuring a not-so-easily decipherable excerpt from Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle in its closing moments, “I Could Be Dreaming” embraces a noticeably more upbeat and empowered tone, as Murdoch blurs the fine lines between fantasy and reality, seemingly advocating that we shouldn’t necessarily segregate our dreams from our actions as rigidly as we do. Described by Murdoch as a “key song” in the band’s early repertoire, “My Wandering Days are Over,” is a gloriously wistful ode to trading bachelorhood for love that showcases Cooke’s euphoric trumpet throughout.
The propulsive “Electronic Renaissance,” which appears midway through the song suite, is the dazzling musical anomaly of the album. A shimmering, exquisitely arranged nod to the hedonism-fueled club culture of the 90s (“You go disco and I'll go Funkadelic, man / Is the way to go / So drop a pill and then say hello”), this is the one song that stands out most profoundly for me.
The unexpectedly, effusively positive reception to Tigermilk helped Belle and Sebastian sign with Jeepster Records in August of 1996. Five and a half months after Tigermilk’s release, the band’s follow-up effort If You’re Feeling Sinister was released to widespread critical acclaim, albeit somewhat obscuring its precursor’s excellence in the process. Over time, however, the reverence for the group’s debut has steadily grown, and deservedly so.
The regret-laced song “It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career” opens the group’s third album The Boy with the Arab Strap. But in the case of Belle and Sebastian and on the strength of their prolific discography, it has been a brilliant career, and the wonderful Tigermilk provided the initial spark.