The story of the making of the first Belle and Sebastian album is like The Magnificent Seven meets School of Rock, minus all the guns and guitar solos. Released 20 years ago today (June 6, 1996), Tigermilk is 10 songs of smart and stylish Scottish indie pop rooted in the travails of leader Stuart Murdoch. Although these were the first songs he’d share with the world, Murdoch arrived in peak form, finding humor and poignancy in the everyday like so many great British songwriters before him.
Belle and Sebastian might never have formed had it not been for Murdoch’s bout with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which knocked the onetime marathon runner out of commission for about seven years beginning in the late ’80s. During his illness, Murdoch would fiddle with the piano when he had the energy and sometimes ride buses around Glasgow, marveling at how regular people lived. His observations would inform many of the songs on Tigermilk and its companion follow-up, If You’re Feeling Sinister, which came out in November of the same year.
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Once he was back on his feet, Murdoch began playing open mics and assembling the group he’d need to give his songs life. In a terrific Pitchfork documentary chronicling the band’s early days, guitarist Stevie Jackson likens the recruitment process to Yul Brynner rounding up his posse of gunfighters in The Magnificent Seven. It’s a funny comparison, since none of these bookish, baby-faced Glaswegian hipsters would’ve lasted five minutes in the Old West.
One of Murdoch’s six recruits, drummer Richard Colburn, was studying the business of music at Stow College in Glasgow. Each year, as part of the coursework, the school’s in-house label, Electric Honey, would record and market a single by a local band. Enthralled by the early B&S single “Dog on Wheels,” Stow let the band make an entire album, which came together in just five days (three for tracking, two for mixing).
By the time Tigermilk hit the streets — in a limited run of 1,000 vinyl records — the Stow students had done their job, and major labels came waving contracts. Careful not to let the project slip out of his control, Murdoch opted for the brand-new indie Jeepster, which would allow the band to release non-album singles and refrain from doing a lot of press. These were concessions he wasn’t likely to get from a major — not after a fat cash advance.
During their Jeepster years, B&S became international poster children for “twee” — the term used to describe and often deride the legions of soft-spoken cardigan-clad bands whose very existence seemed an affront to traditional macho notions of rock ’n’ roll. If Belle and Sebastian helped define the look and sound — building on the fey, jangly aesthetic of The Smiths, Orange Juice and the C86 bands of Britain’s indie ’80s — they were very much their own thing.
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In addition to the wide range of musical influences that would increasingly reveal themselves on later albums, Murdoch’s songwriting made the band special. His ability to commiserate with his characters, even when he seemed to get a kick out of writing them into humiliating situations, made him a patron saint of outcasts and losers. He was a kinder, gentler Morrissey: an anti-rock star who didn’t make it all about himself, even when it was.
Read on for our track-by-track take on Tigermilk, the album that, alongside If You’re Feeling Sinister, introduced a generation of sensitive, introspective indie kids to the band that would change their lives.
“The State I’m In”: A folky little family drama turns into a marvelously layered song about getting right with god. Murdoch’s narrator has been sinning — his priest pens a juicy novel based on his confessions — and yet he’s determined to find a path to righteousness. Despite the spiritual questing, there’s plenty of humor here. Like when Murdoch decides to give himself to god, and the almighty has to think about it for a tick before accepting him into the fold.
“Expectations”: In the tradition of The Smiths’ “The Headmaster Ritual,” Murdoch delivers his first of many great songs about misfit school kids. (The second comes a track later.) As acoustic guitars again give way to a lush indie-pop jam replete with trumpet and strings, the singer offers a pep talk to an artsy fellow student in dire straits. She’s jeered by classmates, leered at by teachers, and misunderstood by the head of English, who asks, “Do you think you’re better than the other kids?” Murdoch certainly thinks she is. “Oh, you’re cool, and you know,” he sings, no doubt transfixed by her clay moldings of Lou Reed and John Cale. “You’re a star and you’ll go far.”
“She’s Losing It”: It’s “Expectations” with higher stakes as Murdoch tells the tale of two troubled girls, one of whom is acting out because of abuse. They forge an us-against-the-world romance, which B&S set to swooning horns and strings. Murdoch’s male narrator makes only a brief appearance, offering his help in the second verse before realizing he’s ill-equipped to play savior in this situation.
“You’re Just a Baby”: B&S come with a genuine rock ’n’ roll tune, complete with handclaps and whirring organ. Buoyed by the beat, Murdoch talks a big game as he serenades a girl who’s young and unschooled in the ways of love. “You’re just a baby, baby girl,” he tells her over and over. Alas, he’s not so clued in himself. “There must be a reason for all the looks we gave / And all the things we never said before,” he sings. “So what’s the score?”
“Electronic Renaissance”: On this extreme sonic outlier, Murdoch puts down the guitar and plugs into Cubase, the primitive digital music software he liked to muck with at the time. There’s an electro-pop revolution underway, and he’s on the periphery, singing with distorted vocals about how high-tech dance music fits into a city of stone steeples. It’s like he wants to get on the boat and take the pills but can’t bring himself to go full disco.
“I Could Be Dreaming”: A cool rippling reverb guitar effect underpins this look at the Mission Impossible plot lines our mind conjures up while we’re sleeping. In one verse, Murdoch again fantasizes about saving a young girl — this time by killing her abusive lover. “If you had such a dream, would you get up and do the things you believe in?” he sings later, as the brisk jangle of the backing track keeps things in the realm of reality.
“We Rule the School”: In this delicate chamber-pop standout, Murdoch connects two pieces of graffiti: an “NC was here” carved into a tree and the title phrase, scrawled across a bus stop “for everyone to see and read.” Both defacers, the song suggests, were motivated by boredom, of course, but also teenage fears of being forgotten. Murdoch sidesteps the question of immortality by offering some great advice to beat the blues. “Do something pretty while you can,” he urges as the strings swell and the flute player floats through the scene like a butterfly at a picnic.
“My Wandering Days Are Over”: Written after Murdoch met Isobel Campbell, the cello player who would complete the band’s lineup, “My Wandering Days” folds the B&S origin story into a larger narrative about a guy hanging up his dancing shoes and settling down. Whether he’s the melancholy “circus boy” who pops up later in the song is never really made clear. The ambiguity manifests itself gorgeously in the final minute, as trumpeter Mick Cooke cuts through the hazy fadeout with a sharp run of notes.
“I Don’t Love Anyone”: Here’s a strummy head-bobber sung by a misanthropic guy who’s learned the value of taking “a hiding.” Whether he’s advocating retreating from the world or accepting the occasional cosmic spanking, “I Don’t Love Anyone” is a song that makes loneliness sound A-OK.
“Mary Jo”: Murdoch takes the album full circle with this lovely flute-laden folk tune. He sings to a lonely middle-aged woman who sits around reading books like The State I Am In, the novel the priest wrote about the narrator on the opening track. As always, Murdoch empathetic yet totally honest about this sad scene before him. “Life is never dull in your dreams,” he tells poor Mary Jo. “A pity that it never seems to work the way you see it.”