Spin Control  

February 19, 2006


Belle & Sebastian, "The Life Pursuit'' (Matador) ***

A decade after forming as a college project in Glasgow, Scotland, Belle and Sebastian have been skirting self-parody for several years now. After peaking with 1998's "The Boy With the Arab Strap" and 2000's "Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant," the group's fragile, orchestrated folk-rock -- some have hailed its dainty melodies and poetic/literary lyrics as paradigms of an indie-rock subgenre called "twee pop" -- had become ever-more precious and predictable, almost unbearably so. But the group takes some unexpected detours on its seventh album.

Trading the fog and rain of the British Isles for the sunny warmth of Los Angeles and recording with veteran Beck collaborator Tony Hoffer, the band has crafted its most upbeat and instantly accessible effort, upping the tempo considerably on many of the 13 tracks, and riding some seductive soul, funk and glam-rock grooves. Belle and Sebastian get funky? Yes, you read that right, and it actually works: Nobody ever said that violins and clarinets can't have soul.

Whether primary songwriter Stuart Murdoch and his bandmates have finally decided to broach the mainstream after 10 years' devotion to indie obscurantism, or they want to reclaim the spotlight from more recent twee competitors such as the Decemberists, they benefit from the emphasis on simpler, jauntier melodies. And in "Sukie in the Graveyard," they even poke gentle fun at themselves and their followers, telling the tale of "the kid [who] liked to hang out at the art school / She didn't enroll, but she wiped the floor with all the a--holes." All attempted indie-rock sell-outs should be this endearing.