As a college freshman I was assigned a work-study position at a local bookstore, a quaint little shop called River City Books (RIP). After I saw my classmates stuck with dining hall jobs, I realized I’d gotten lucky. River City had the erudite atmosphere of a college town and the allaying glow of worn-in couches, wooden bookshelves, and soft lighting. I mostly did inventory—packaging, shipping, invoices. Stuff like that. The store didn’t get much traffic, so when I wasn’t in the stockroom, I was talking to the late-20-something guy that manned the register (let’s call him Greg, because I can’t remember his name). Greg liked music, and so did I, so that’s what we talked about.
In my first few days at school, I had discovered that most liberal arts kids didn’t listen to classic rock and shitty nu metal—the kinds of music I had been exposed to in small town Minnesota—so I was trying to quickly catch up on what I’d missed. I asked Greg what he was into. “Oh, the kind of music we sell here,” he told me, “Belle and Sebastian sort of stuff, you know.” I didn’t. Not wanting to seem ignorant and uncultured, I returned to my dorm room and looked up Belle and Sebastian. Turns out they were an indie pop band that had been formed in Scotland in 1996 by a pair of Stuarts (Murdoch and David). Then I looked for an entry point. It may have been the fact that it was their first record, or it may have been the boobs on the cover (I was 18, after all); either way, I chose to begin with Tigermilk.
The Belles’ debut arrived 20 years ago this week, but it did so quietly. The album began as demos recorded by Murdoch and David with Stow College professor Alan Rankine. The tracks were first noticed by the school’s Music Business course, which released one single per year through Stow’s boutique, student-run label, Electric Honey. After hearing the early B&S cut “Dog on Wheels,” Electric Honey was so impressed that they let Murdoch and David record an entire album.
Tigermilk came together in just five days. It was pressed on vinyl in a 1,000-copy release and shipped off into the world. But this was a pre-file sharing world, so if you weren’t one of the thousand buyers, you didn’t hear the record. You didn’t even know it existed. And that was a mystique that burgeoned until its eventual rerelease in 1999. By that time we’d already heard what is still to this day considered their magnum opus, If You’re Feeling Sinister, which had arrived in the fall of 1996 just months after Tigermilk. Very few, though, had heard the beginning.
What could expectations have been? Here was a guy, Stuart Murdoch, who had written a bunch of songs over three years (1993-1996) and then ironed them out at open mic nights in Glasgow before eventually producing them through a college label—an entity with relatively few financial or musical resources. And all the best tracks he wrote had to have gone into Sinister, right? Considering the rerelease came on the heels of both their crown jewel and 1998’s success, The Boy With the Arab Strap, and that both of those records were supported by the sturdier label, Jeepster, expectations couldn’t have been high. If that was indeed the case, then people must have been blown away.
I may have been late to the indie game, but I caught on quickly. I admired the scrappy aesthetic and the DIY immediacy of bedroom recordings and jangly acoustic guitars. That wasn’t Tigermilk, though. Scrappy, maybe, but this was full-bodied, well-plotted, and richly arranged. It sounded as though its maker had waited to bare his soul to the world until it was full-fledged and fecund. The fact that it was a nearly unknown debut album recorded in less than a week is mind-boggling.
Listen to the record for 30 seconds and you’re hooked. Strings, trumpets, guitars, flutes, and drums commingle around Murdoch, who spins lyrics both incisive and fey. “The State I Am In,” Tigermilk‘s first and most enduring track, is immediately redolent of the masters: Nick Drake’s vulnerable presence and songwriting acuity; Lou Reed‘s stark wit; Morrissey’s espousal of youthful misfits. In retrospect, Tigermilk both defined the era from which it was born and transcended it entirely.
Which era is that exactly? It’s indie pop, for sure, but we all know that doesn’t mean anything anymore. The album’s soft-spoken sentimentality points to the oft-derisive “twee” label, but Tigermilk—and Belle and Sebastian at large—isn’t emptily pretty or maudlin or some of the other things associated with twee. It’s certainly sentimental, but it’s much more than that, too.
The pastoral harpsichord and flute of “We Rule the School,” for instance, speak to the chamber pop complexities that pervade the record. Then there are the propulsive synthesizers of “Electronic Renaissance.” And the garage rock sensibilities of “You’re Just a Baby.” You can sense Murdoch feeling his way around, plying various sounds in search of one that was truly his, the one he’d deliver with complete certainty in Sinister. Even then, though, the lyrics were already there, and those words sit at Tigermilk‘s heart.
These aren’t the cloying, real life facsimiles that give twee a bad name; instead, Murdoch tells fantastic stories with an awareness that’s grounded in real life. They are phantasms of an imagined elsewhere—not quite here, but never too far away. “Life is never dull in your dreams,” Murdoch sings in Tigermilk’s final track, “Mary Jo.” The song continues, “A pity that it never seems to work the way you see it.” Who can’t relate to that? It’s an affirmation that we all fail sometimes, and a reminder that, if need be, we can escape to our dreams because anything is possible there.
In these ways, Murdoch is a voice for the unvoiced, a voice for all those introspective teenage kids that don’t quite know what they’re doing and sometimes go to liberal arts schools. Like a bookshop in a small college town, Tigermilk is intelligent, lived-in, and softly lit. It was everything I needed in the state I was in—that of a confused college kid that didn’t know anything about anything but kind of thought he did. It was a step forward in a journey toward knowing myself. And I’m sure I’m not the only one that felt that way.
Featured Image: Amy Hope Dermont
Images: Electric Honey