Review Summary: "It's got to be fate that's doing it..."
Plenty of records can cite a classic back story, but only the true greats can back theirs up with grade-A content. Tigermilk
's mere existence is a blessing, and the fact it's now in wider circulation is something of a minor miracle. The key to its unlikely tale lay in outrageously talented Glaswegian Stuart Murdoch, a former boxer who, having being diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, chose to pursue an alternative path in songwriting. After a short stint performing on the city's open mic circuit, he decided to hook up with bassist Stuart David, eventually assembling a full band under the Belle & Sebastian moniker. Before long, the group's demos fell into the hands of Alan Rankine, the head of a Music Business course at the local Stow College. Impressed by what he heard, Rankine granted them access to a studio, with a view to releasing a single on the college's label, Electric Honey Records. Once there, though, the pool of material was deemed strong enough for a full LP, with Tigermilk
- initially limited to 1000 vinyl copies - the ultimate result.
16 years later, the surprise with which the band greeted their golden opportunity is still clearly audible. Simply put, this album sounds like the hurriedly assembled crop of ideas it is: there's no sequencing, no cohesion, and no indication that these factors were even considered while they excitedly cobbled together the fruits of their endeavours. Its plight is epitomised by 'Electronic Renaissance,' a regressive New Order-ish disco oddball which seems almost comically out of place amongst a wealth of material that's otherwise guitar-centric. That song, and indeed the entire record's saving grace is clear; its conception lay exclusively in the hands of Murdoch, a creative genius whose Midas touch dominates proceedings like a sprinkling of real life magic dust. Tender, poignant and withdrawn, each of his songs acts as a mini masterpiece in itself, showcasing not only his sensational melodicism but also the hugely diverse musical palette that Belle And Sebastian allowed him.
Written during a period of isolation when coming to terms with his illness, most of Murdoch's songs adopt a folky aesthetic and focus on genuine characters he observed whilst living above a church hall. Also a master of word play, his dexterous tongue is a source of inspiration throughout, providing staggering insight into themes including bullying, pressure and love - and that's only in the first two songs. At any given time, his lyrics can be comedic, sobering, uplifting, or just about any other emotion one can summon, all while coming from a voice as flat and fragile as you'd expect from a man on the edge. Remarkably, his ear for a tune was just as strong, lending from key influences such as The Beatles, The Smiths and Felt but still managing to sound utterly distinctive. Whether it's the distant elegance of 'The State I Am In,' the pure pop perfection of 'You're Not A Baby' or the introspective beauty of 'My Wandering Days Are Over,' each of his majestic hooks is capable of laying siege to a listener's heart, refusing to budge until it's completely at their mercy.
With such a precious arsenal of gifts at his disposal, Murdoch's main challenge must have been to find an effective means through which to express them. It's no exaggeration to say that Tigermilk
struck the perfect formula - even if the songwriter's presence is so domineering that it's often easy to forget that it represents a collaborative effort. Uneven contributions or not, this is a record which more than lives up to the legend of its creation, providing a magnificent benchmark from which Murdoch and Belle & Sebastian could develop even further.