Release Date: Aug 27, 2013
Record label: Matador
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Pop, Chamber Pop
The compilation’s 21(!) tracks link together with uncomplicated whimsy. Uncluttered and fancy-free, the devil is in the details: the French flourishes and jazz-piano breakdown of “Love on the March,” a reference to the NHS capping off the morbid tale of “Suicide Girl,” the AM gold saxophone accompaniment of “Heavin in the Afternoon.” The remix material—including The Avalanches’ Afro-pop inspired rerub of “I’m a Cuckoo”—is fun, but ultimately unnecessary. Less an exercise in cleverness (after all, everyone’s clever nowadays) and more an excuse to trot out pure pop melodies, Third Eye Centre seems unlikely to win over new fans.
If you’re the kind of fan who gets excited about a Belle & Sebastian B-sides compilation, the likelihood is you’ll already have the 19 tracks on this. Putting that catch-22 aside, this latest selection charts an alternative history of the group’s last three albums for the more intermittent follower to adore. The scope is pretty enormous. There are, as is customary, unnecessary remixes (hi, Richard X!), instrumentals better suited to the upcoming God Help The Girl film singer Stuart Murdoch is working on, and dubious sexual allusions aplenty (Suicide Girl and, gulp, Meat And Potatoes).
In the late 90s, Belle and Sebastian were one of the first bands to capitalize on the internet’s ability to unite small clusters of enthusiasts into a sizeable and vocal international cult. And they did so by embodying the very values that the internet would eventually displace: patience, privacy, scarcity. To be a Belle and Sebastian fan in North America was to play armchair detective, whether it was gleaning personal details about a band that never appeared in publicity photos or granted interviews, or simply trying to track down their records in your local music shop’s import bin.
As one of the intermittent non-LP clearing houses Belle & Sebastian occasionally release, The Third Eye Centre performs a useful service for dedicated fans while offering a roundly enjoyable B&S record for those who don't keep tallies of individual singles. Unlike Push Barman to Open Old Wounds, which rounded up the tight, purposeful EPs of the late '90s and singles of the early days of the new millennium, The Third Eye Centre plays a bit like a warehouse of B-sides. Some of this is due to the handful of remixes scattered throughout the 18-track album -- it opens with the Avalanches remix of "I'm a Cuckoo," and mixes of "Your Cover's Blown" and "I Didn't See It Coming" arrive later -- as they're within the band's aesthetic yet sonically different.
B-side collections should rarely be as good as albums. They offer wonderful glimpses of your favorite bands' development processes—B-sides are the rock record equivalent of a DVD's deleted scenes—showing off ill-fitting tracks, interesting failures, and songs deemed unworthy of wider release for other various reasons. This isn't always true, though, particularly when a band's creative output grossly outpaces the rate at which they can put out LPs.
For some, Belle And Sebastian are twee, sickly sweet and lacking in substance. For others, the Glaswegian indie pop band are peerless storytellers, champions of life’s underdogs, outsiders and eccentrics. ‘The Third Eye Centre’ is a collection of rarities, collectibles and non-album tracks taken from the past 10 years of the band’s career, and won’t change anyone’s stance.
It doesn't seem like 14 years have passed since Belle and Sebastian collected their award for Best Newcomer at the 1999 Brit Awards. Yet looking back, the Belle and Sebastian of that pre-millennium era was a very different entity to the one represented on The Third Eye Centre, their second compilation after 2005's Push Barman To Open Old Wounds. A carefully assembled selection of b-sides, remixes and obscure rarities, The Third Eye Centre basically encompasses the past decade, from 2003's Dear Catastrophe Waitress onwards.
It’s hard to think of any current band that’s gotten as much mileage out of non-album releases as Belle and Sebastian has. Right when the Glasgow pop collective was starting out, its streak of winning EPs helped to define the band almost as much its full-lengths, taking an all-killer-no-filler approach to them: When most groups might throw together a maxi-single with one strong track surrounded by a cover, a demo, and a moldy oldie from second guitarist’s first band, Belle and Sebastian never considered such offerings as merely something to tide over its growing fanbase between albums, instead taking advantage of each opportunity to try new approaches and develop its craft. Neither too hard nor too easy to track down, titles like Lazy Line Painter Jane and 3…6…9 Seconds of Light, both from 1997, helped make a new cult every time out for Belle and Sebastian, forging a personal bond between them and their fans that’s still uncommon to this day.
A ‘B-sides and rarities’ compilation is, by necessity, something of a curate’s egg. After all, there must be a reason why these tracks never made final cut. Yet, within the ‘reissue, repackage, repackage’ mentality, the odd decent B-side collection can be found. Sci-Fi Lullabies by Suede is a great reminder of their early material and Oasis‘ The Masterplan is a fine argument that had Noel Gallagher saved some of his ‘lesser’ songs for later on in his career, we may never had the horror of Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants.
Halfway through Tigermilk, Belle & Sebastian‘s 1996 debut, the band’s gentle yet acidic baroque pop is interrupted by a flurry of synths pulled straight from the roller rink. It goes on for about five minutes before things return to their regularly scheduled programming. Unsurprisingly titled “Electronic Renaissance”, the track has always been divisive among fans, and for good reason.
Belle and Sebastian's first compilation of non-LP tracks, 2005's Push Barman to Open Old Wounds, was so consistent in terms of style and quality that it held up nicely against any of their releases. The same cannot be said for The Third Eye Centre, however, which sounds exactly like what it is: a hodgepodge of B-sides and experiments, many of them not good enough to be included on a proper full-length. At times, it sounds as if the group are playing genre roulette, awkwardly dabbling in bossa nova, reggae, skiffle and mariachi.
One of the most endearing things about Belle And Sebastian’s peak years was their insistence on doing everything their own way. It wasn’t that they were rallying against the internet’s impact on the industry; their stand-out hat-trick of Tigermilk, If You’re Feeling Sinister and The Boy With The Arab Strap predates the transition of the web from the exclusive preserve of the computer nerd to its present-day ubiquity. As Pitchfork’s tremendous YouTube documentary on the band’s early years suggests, the refusal to release singles from albums, extremely limited press interaction and absence from their own promotional photography were all born of a desire to go back to the way things used to be, back when bands released a record a year and focused solely on their music.
By its nature, The Third Eye Centre, a handsome looking compendium of b-sides and off-cuts from Belle And Sebastian's Rough Trade releases, was never going to be much more than an exercise in fulfilling the band's contractual obligations. If it's not actually aiming to recruit new fans, it's a tough album to recommend even to the casuals. The selection goes beyond merely scattershot to horribly uneven.