Recorded quickly and cheaply as the first album from Electric Honey, the in-house record label from Glasgow's Stow College's music business program, Belle and Sebastian's 1996 debut, Tigermilk, is a rare record in many respects. Initially, it was simply scarce, limited to a run of 1,000 and not re-released until 1999, by which time Belle and Sebastian were established as one of the great indie pop sensations of the late '90s. It is also rare in the sense that not many indie records are made with assistance from a university, but Tigermilk is rarest in how it captures a band that seems simultaneously fledgling and fully formed. Certainly, Tigermilk bears its share of rough edges -- the subjects linger in adolescence, the compositions aren't as sophisticated as what would arrive just a short time later, "Electronic Renaissance" is the kind of lo-fi synth pastiche bands need to get out of their system in their first year -- but they're splinters on a distinctive aesthetic forged by singer/songwriter Stuart Murdoch. His wry delivery and plummy voice, along with his predilection for delicate folk, disguises his toughness. Tigermilk may be gentle on the surface, but Murdoch's strength is evident in his sardonic storytelling and sturdy craftsmanship, the very things that wound up being the foundation of Belle and Sebastian's career. They're in full flower on Tigermilk, surfacing on tunes throughout the album, but crystallizing on the skipping "She's Losing It," rushed "Expectations," '60s throwback "I Could Be Dreaming," and, especially, "The State I Am In," a masterful melodrama that points toward the richness of If You're Feeling Sinister, which arrived just a few months later. Those are the moments when Belle and Sebastian feel preternaturally gifted, seeming to know precisely who they were right out of the gate.
© Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo