Have you heard Tigermilk? Probably not. Belle and Sebastian's debut album was released in 1996 as part of a college music-business class project and only 1,000 copies were distributed, on vinyl no less. But now, after the success of the Scottish band's most recent albums, 1997's If You're Feeling Sinister and The Boy With the Arab Strap (1998), the debut is being re-released, this time on CD.
On Tigermilk, as on subsequent albums, Belle and Sebastian use acoustic guitars, muted horns, flute and piano to create impossibly engaging melodies. But even when the music is at its bounciest, there's an air of hesitation in it, an air that lead singer Stuart Murdoch only reinforces with his whispery, world-weary vocals. More often than not he sounds as though he's on the verge of drifting off to sleep or has just awakened, or is in limbo between the two. And thus, even the "happy" songs on Tigermilk are informed by a sense of wistfulness and impending loss. Which is fitting, given that most of the songs here are variations on the theme of lost innocence even if the innocence "lost" is in fact lost and regained over and over again.
Consider the album's graceful opening song, "The State I Am In" (RealAudio excerpt), which is rife with the usual Belle and Sebastian preoccupations: losing, losing it, transgression, redemption, backsliding, redemption again. "So I gave myself to God," Murdoch sings. "There was a pregnant pause before he said 'OK'." In Murdoch's world, apparently, even the Lord has problems with faith. On "Expectations" (RealAudio excerpt), Murdoch makes even the line "You're on top of the world again" sound melancholy, stretching his voice to sweet breaking on the final word until it becomes fraught with the imminent, inevitable fall.
Paired with the band's melodic folk-pop, however, such sentiments never turn oppressive. Instead, Tigermilk is, like its successors, decidedly sinister. But not sinister as in creepy or evil sinister as in indirect. The music suggests one mood, the lyrics another, and before you know it you're tapping your toes to the tale of a student who makes "lifesize models of the Velvet Underground in clay" and gets teased for being strange.
At the same time, Murdoch always manages to toe the line between flippancy and sincerity. His way with a lyric appears so facile "So they jab you with a fork/ You drop the tray and go berserk/ While you're cleaning up the mess the teacher's looking up your skirt" that he often runs the risk of coming off as merely clever. But Murdoch tempers the wicked bite with the weary grace of his voice, and a "get over it and get on with it" attitude that elevates Belle and Sebastian from the ranks of the twee to the realm of the sublime. "Write a song/ I'll sing along/ Are you calm?/ Settle down," he concludes after detailing the fork-jabbing incident in a capricious universe ruled by a fickle God, that mix of gallows humor and gentle compassion is crucial.