Less Bang, More Bob

These songs get under your skin and infect your hum reflex. Symptoms include bobbing your head from side to side to the beat and doing Eddie Murphy's White People Dance.

Lars Ulrich, drummer for Metallica, has to be the crankiest musician alive (at least, he used to be).

His trademark in interviews is to rip apart every band in the Western world, including metal ones. In fact, for a while there, I thought the only group he really liked was Diamond Head. (He actually went so far as to moonlight as liner-notes scribe for their Behold The Beginning retrospective.) And I seem to recall him saying that the video for REM's "Shiny Happy People" made him want to smash his television to pieces.

Now, for some sick reason, I began to use Mr. Oilrig as a sort of music measuring tool -- as in, "Wow, Lars would really hate this song!" And then I got to thinking that it might be a fun idea to make a tape called "Songs That Would Probably Drive Lars Ulrich Fuckin' Bananas!" The list would include well, yes, "Shiny Happy People," but also Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights," Madonna's "I'm Going Bananas," Roxanne Shante's "Roxanne's Revenge," DeBarge's "Be My Lady," Suede's "Sleeping Pills" and, most definitely, the Roches' "Ing."

The point I'm trying to make here, is that music lovers often conceive of musical irritation or obnoxiousness or drawing lines in the sand as the province of brutish metallers, punkers or sometimes, if they thought hard enough about it, even gangsta rappers. Indeed, those are the very qualities so frequently cited in defense of the value of such music. But I'd like to posit that, while most of the above songs for Lars' tape have listeners that like to feel pretty and witty and gay, we shouldn't downplay their power to irritate the shit out of, say, a world-hating art student or a reality-obsessed Source reader. The shiniest, happiest song can produce as extreme an effect as the loudest, snottiest screed.

How this relates to Belle and Sebastian is that I would definitely include "Judy and the Dream of Horses" (the last song off their breakthrough album, If You're Feeling Sinister) on Lars' tape. The title alone is enough to make me laugh out loud at how Lars wouldn't even give it the time of day.

In fact, scanning the titles of a Belle and Sebastian album reminds me of paging through those Scholastic Weekly Reader catalogues that sold books like "Freckle Juice" and posters that read something like "Everyone Has Bad Days" and were adorned with pictures of kittens caught up in yarn. Regard: "Spaceboy Dream," "The Boy with the Arab Strap," "Simple Things," "The Rollercoaster Ride" and "Ease Your Feet Into The Sea," all of which are from the new album. If any band could set the silliest book title I've ever heard ("Frosty: A Raccoon To Remember") to music, it would be Belle and Sebastian.

Of course, there are also titles like "It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career," "Is It Wicked Not To Care" and "Dirty Dream #2," so I don't want to misrepresent the band. In fact, they rarely radiate a childlike cuteness the way Papas Fritas or Shonen Knife sometimes do. But their songs do access the quality of those obnoxious songs about clowns and whatnot with which your niece or nephew (or son or daughter) return from their first few weeks at kindergarten. Not in terms of content, but in their simple humability, their sheer insistence. Apart from a stray Shante or Missy Elliott rap, the songs of Belle and Sebastian are the only ones I teach to my friends who don't listen to music.

Teach to sing, that is. I have no idea what Stuart Murdoch and company are singing about, and I'm not all that interested. Besides, my friends are only hip about hair and clothes, so I'd have no one with whom to discuss their content. The primary fascination Belle and Sebastian hold for me is that for all their verse-chorus-verses and rhyming stanzas, these aren't songs, but rather viruses. They're insidious carriers that get under your skin and infect your hum reflex. Symptoms include bobbing your head from side to side to the beat and doing Eddie Murphy's White People Dance.

Usually, this menace is achieved by repeating lines with slight variations, making it easier to break down your immune system. From "It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career": "Painting pines (vines?) in a school that was too well-known/ Painting pines with a friend that had gone before." From "Sleep The Clock Around": "It takes more than this to make sense of the day/ Yeah, it takes more than milk to get rid of the taste." From "Ease Your Feet Into The Sea": "Stay with us 'til we get old/ Stay with us 'til somebody decides to go."

If you have the slightest weakness for their intimate, AM radio-influenced folk-pop, their tunes will barge into your life and paralyze your mouth into a Cheshire grin for the duration. (I happen to be in this deliriously happy category.) But, if all you see around you is ugliness, the catchiness will abrade like Chinese Water Torture.

How's your forehead now, Lars?