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For Whom Belle Tolls

Glasgow septet Belle and Sebastian have always made orchestral maneuvers in the dark. On their new album, they get self-conscious about it.

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Great Scots: From left, Belle and Sebastian's Mick Cooke, Stevie Jackson, and Chris Geddes.  

From the mid-sixties heyday of garage rock to the next decade's punk explosion to the ascendance of grunge, rock's do-it-yourself ethic has been synonymous with loud and fast -- and a limited emotional palette. Except a funny thing happened as the generation of punk fans raised on Nirvana grew up, formed bands, and began looking for another emotion and a fourth chord: They stayed "indie" -- recording for small labels on the cheap and disdaining commercial success -- but decided to trade in their Ramones obsessions in order to idolize pop maestros like Burt Bacharach and Brian Wilson.

At first listen, Glasgow's seven-member Belle and Sebastian seems firmly in that mode -- the band sounds like it formed after its members met at a meeting of a Nick Drake fan club. (In fact, singer-guitarist Stuart Murdoch put the band together as his final project for a college music-business class.) But its first two albums, Tigermilk and If You're Feeling Sinister, immediately established Belle and Sebastian as more than the sum of its eclectic influences -- drummer Richard Colburn called the then-octet "a sixteen-legged stramash that sounds like Nick Drake, Love, and Donovan." The group balanced its singsong melodies and school-orchestra instrumentation (the band includes a cellist, a violinist, and a trumpeter) with a name nicked from an obscure animated French TV series and rainy-day lyrics that range in mood from melancholy to just plain mopey. Its members also cultivated a practiced guilelessness -- refusing most interview requests and saying they'd rather play for friends at home than tour clubs -- that began to wear thin once they became more competent as musicians.

On Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (Matador), Belle and Sebastian gets self-conscious -- at least about its own insouciance. Murdoch even has a chuckle at his own expense on "Nice Day for a Sulk," a midtempo falsetto romp with plinking keyboards that reinforce the song's easy self-deprecating humor. The lyrics even reference English rocker Manfred Mann, further sending up the artificiality of the band's rustic shtick.

In a move that would have been unimaginable on previous albums, Belle and Sebastian even gets a little funky on "Don't Leave the Light On Baby," which opens with a loping Rhodes keyboard figure, adds some James Bond-worthy strings, and builds to a rousing chorus worthy of Dusty in Memphis. (Sadly, the funniest and funkiest song the band's ever recorded didn't make it onto Fold Your Hands. Released as a pre-album teaser, the sitars-'n'-congas rave-up "Legal Man" features flatly hilarious innuendos like "I'll render any services you may reasonably require.")

Of course, much of Belle and Sebastian's charm still comes from its feigned innocence. Listening to "The Model," which offsets Murdoch's matte-finish vocals with perky harpsichord and strings, is like being at a party where there's a lull in conversation punctuated by an embarrassing revelation. At the end of the second verse, Murdoch sings, "She met another blind kid at a fancy dress"; then the music pauses and he continues, "It was the best sex that she ever had." It's this kind of counterintuitive jolt that makes Belle and Sebastian so unsettling: Here you are, half ignoring the words and tapping your foot to a pretty tune, when suddenly there's a rude lyrical shock.

In a larger sense, the shock is that Belle and Sebastian have grown out of their awkward adolescence. And they sound all the more interesting for having done so in full view of their fans. If Fold Your Hands were their first album instead of their fourth, if they had sprinkled their sadness with cynicism right from the start, Belle and Sebastian would still be charming. But they're all the more enthralling for having learned to laugh through their tears.


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