WITH A NAME like Belle And Sebastian, perhaps you'd expect some precious and terribly earnest duo of harmonizing folk strummers in ruffle shirts. And though you'd be completely wrong about this mysteriously camera-shy seven-piece pop orchestra from Glasgow, Scotland, you'd still have the right idea. Led by singer and songwriter Stuart Murdoch, Belle And Sebastian make exquisitely gentle and lush folk-pop that would blend into a pastoral country scene the way long grass or a rolling brook--or a pair of earnest folk singers--would.
It's the kind of thing that shows up again and again in the music of provincial Britain: from Donovan and Nick Drake in the '60s and '70s to the Lilac Time and Martin Stephenson and the Daintees (remember them?) in the '80s. But there are other musical traditions working on Belle And Sebastian's CD release as well. As a writer, Murdoch shares Morrissey's knack for coming up with great song titles--"The Stars of Track and Field" or "Judy and the Dream of Horses," for instance--that pay off in the lyrics as often as they don't. When the words work, Murdoch seems to characterize sleepy northern towns--full of confused kids and the twisted adults they grow up to be--the way Ray Davies sketches Greater London, with a dreamy melancholy that constantly gets upstaged by wry wit.
More appealing than the verse, though, are the players. It's a large-band folk sound, comparable to Nashville's Lambchop or England's Tindersticks, only brighter, poppier, and much more Scottish. With at least three voices, electric and acoustic guitars, pianos and organs, cello and violin, horns and harmonica, and even what sounds like a warped plastic recorder, Belle And Sebastian use a full palette of colors. But even at their most upbeat, they paint in subdued watercolors. What results is big music that manages to sound rich while still feeling quite small and intimate. (Roni Sarig)
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