There was a time when Belle and Sebastian carried about themselves a mystique that hardly any other band possessed. Opting not to release album singles, famously not taking publicity photos and releasing acclaimed albums with long spaces in between, the Scottish indie pop band attracted much attention and an ever-growing fan base.
In recent years, the baroque pop band has lost some of that mystery given their musical experimentation, more frequent tour dates and the inclusion of their music on movie soundtracks, such as “Juno.”
Back in 2005 Belle and Sebastian released an extensive double-disc set of B-sides, rarities and unreleased material from 1997 to 2001, proving to fans and critics that their back catalogue was just as good as their album material. It, along with the recent Pitchfork Media documentary, removed the remaining aura surrounding their formative years, their songwriting and their identity.
This time around, the seven-piece band returns with “The Third Eye Centre,” a second compilation of 19 tracks from the past decade. The release seems to be a statement of where the band presently stands, more open about their image and relationship with their music.
Although this new collection contains some noteworthy material, some filler weighs it down. This is not to say that the album does not have potential — there is plenty to interest a devoted fan, including insightful linear notes. However, the varied quality of songs and the fact that this is a compilation of rare material may not be enough to keep the casual fan or newcomer engaged.
That aside, there are some great highlights in this collection to consider.
“(I Believe In) Travellin’ Light” is a soft, country-sounding number that brings to mind an effervescence that is reflected by the lyrics: “Shimmering, travelling by / Magical waves under the sky / It knows no time, it knows no bounds.”
The song “Stop, Look and Listen” sounds like a Simon & Garfunkel tune with its two-voice harmonies and acoustic rhythm guitar; “I Took a Closer Look”, examining the changing perspective and disconnect toward childhood heroes as one grows older, is a simplistic piano ballad.
Belle and Sebastian have never shied away from difficult subject matter in their lyrics — ranging from relationships and growing up to religion and sexuality — and that is evident in a number of songs. But if you’re not listening closely, most of the meaning may be lost in the ear candy cascade of pleasing pop melodies and musical intricacies.
Of special note are two surprisingly effective remixes: the band’s popular “Your Cover’s Blown” benefits from a new mix from Miaoux Miaoux, now soaring to fervent, almost disco club heights, whereas the Richard X remix of “I Didn’t See It Coming” is a pleasing pop variant of the original version from the “Belle and Sebastian Write About Love” album.
Even though some of the material is occasionally hit-and-miss on this collection — when is this not the case in most B-side catalogues? — there are enough gems to make the time spent listening worthwhile. Now that Belle and Sebastian plans to return to the studio to lay down some new tracks, one can only wonder where the music will take them in their constantly morphing identity and what act they may put on next.