Legal Man marked a significant stylistic shift for Glasgow mopesters Bell & Sebastian, injecting confident swagger and a far more aggressively upbeat approach into their expertly twee sound. The period leading up to Legal Man saw Stuart Murdoch and his cohort of overcast accomplices perfecting their Nick Drake worship, turning in LPs (Tigermilk, If You're Feeling Sinister, The Boy With The Arab Strap, and Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant) and EPs (the uniformly excellent Dog On Wheels, Lazy Line Painter Jane, 3...6...9 Seconds of Light, and This Is Just A Modern Rock Song) that continue to set the bar for folky, delicate, heartbreakingly catchy indie pop. B&S sounded like B&S, and that sounded great.
But Legal Man -- with its groovy retro cover art, beatnik chicks looking to hold some cute mod waif as a sexy hostage -- was different. A three song EP featuring the title track, the cheekily-titled instrumental "Judy Is A Dickslap," and the bouncy "Winter Wooskie," it seemed to announce a new, different kind of B&S. Not exactly a seismic shift, no; but this was not exactly the Caledonian crew of the 20th century. A new millennium seemingly spelled changes for the frequently morose lads and lassies.
"Legal Man" shows B&S's newfangled colors right away, opening with kingsized echoey amplified sitars out of a John Barry spy score, punchy, propulsive drums, spiky power chords, rave-up organs, and a crowing female chorus exclaiming, "L-O-V-E love/ It's coming back/ It's coming back!" Well, great! The bass line gets all Bootsy as Murdoch spells out terms of affection in the best barrister manner: "Not withstanding provisions of clauses 1,2,3 and 4/ Extend contractual period, me and you for evermore." It's B&S as reimagined by Curtis Mayfield or Isaac Hayes, a sunny, grin-inducing delight, breathlessly admonishing listeners (and typical B&S fans, conceivably) to, "Get out of the city and into the sunshine." A new leaf turned to the sunny side.
The other two tracks stay on the positive tip, keeping the tempos up and the mood light. "Judy Is A Dickslap" rides a springy rhythm guitar line and thrusting drums, drenched in cheery synth runs. "Winter Wooskie," while boasting some of that old B&S melancholy magic, nevertheless remains a track to warm the cockles, a winter reverie, a sweet meditation on far off infatuation. "And maybe I'm in love," go the wistful vocals, "And maybe that's enough." Awwww is right.
The first time I saw Belle & Sebastian was in 1998, right after If You're Feeling Sinister started to make waves in the States. That night, Stuart Murdoch was a mess, painfully shy and mumbling incomprehensibly between songs, with a band that seemed to only tentatively know its material. It was adorable. The last time I saw B&S was in 2003 or so, during the Dear Catastrophe Waitress tour, and it was a whole 'nother story: Murdoch has metastasized into a preening showman, cocksure and hipsprung, and the band played a set that emphasized their dancier, more beat-oriented tunes, evincing an outright distaste for their earlier, more fragile sound. I think Legal Man marked the beginning of B&S Mark II, the B&S I saw that night. And as irritated as I was by that performance, I still love this EP, a signpost to a new direction, a work that captures the shift and makes it sound exciting.
Belle & Sebastian