Winter of Their Youth

In a certain light (the hazy glow of late-summer afternoons, for instance), obsession seems like the only reasonable response to Belle and Sebastian. Introspective and introverted, deeply artful and fiercely protective of their art, these young Scots inspire the sort of irrational devotion you'd think only lapsed Smiths fans could muster--and, in most cases, you'd be exactly right.

It comes down to this: falling in love with Belle and Sebastian is as purely immersive an experience as pop has to offer today. The band's three albums and three EPs to date (all released since mid 1996) work in much the same way, sealing off pristine melodies in a vividly observedorimagined world whose resonance ultimately has more to do with exoticism than universality. The tunes are what reel you in, but it's tones and textures--teasing ambiguity, clear-eyed internal logic, fascinating overall attention to detail--that keep you coming back.

Even by Difficult Third Album standards, The Boy With the Arab Strapis a prickly one, born of the existential confusion that must arise from continuing to hold down your day jobs in Glasgow and, say, being featured on Entertainment Weekly's It List. The release of If You're Feeling Sinister last year saw the B&S cult swell to include most of the Western hemisphere's rock critics, and the group, despite concerted anonymity-preserving efforts, is reluctantly having to wriggle out of its cocoon.

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Arab Strap is the soundtrack to that emergence, and perhaps slightly awkward for that. Though it's one of the year's catchiest, sweetest records, it's fair to say that Belle and Sebastian have created more immediately thrilling music than this in the past, and will likely do so again in the future. The arrangements--for strings, brass, piano, and, on one track, bagpipes--are even more spacious and intricate than before. But a number of the songs lack the soaring melodies and dazzling lyrical conceits that distinguished Sinister and each of last summer's brilliant EPs--"Dog on Wheels," "Lazy Line Painter Jane," and "3.. 6.. 9 Seconds of Light" (all on Jeepster import)--which taken together would actually make a stronger, more revealing album than Sinister or Arab Strap.

There's an ever-accruing backlog of as-yet-unrecorded material, thanks to the prolific 28-year-old singer and main songwriter, Stuart Murdoch, who, in a perfectly B&S real-life touch, is the live-in caretaker of a Glasgow church where he's also a choirboy. The band's single most transportive instrument, Murdoch's voice is a quavering, goose-pimply falsetto, the precise aural equivalent of wide-eyed wonderment right before it's shot to pieces. Equal parts E. M. and Robert Forster, Murdoch claims to draw inspiration from Felt records, Hal Hartley films, and public transportation. Shy but not wimpy, he's a smirky romantic, a sensitive wiseass, capable of heart-stopping loveliness, and a little embarrassed about it.

On The Boy With the Arab Strap, more than ever before, Murdoch steps aside forhis colleagues. Bassist Stuart David does the spoken-word thing that he's made into a side gig, Looper, on "A Space Boy Dream," a matter-of-factly surreal Mars-mission fantasy. Cellist Isobel Campbell wrote the miniaturist, Beautiful South­like barbed love song "Is It Wicked Not To Care?" which she sings solo. Guitarist Stevie Jackson is the primary revelation, contributing two rueful, perhaps self-consciously naive odes to the seductiveness and gently corrupting influence of America: "Seymour Stein," a lovesick ballad named for the Sire boss who, a couple of years ago, lost Belle and Sebastian to Tom Zutaut's The Enclave (which folded shortly after releasing Sinister), and "Chickfactor," as in the zine, about feeling homesick while hanging with New York scenesters.

Arab Strap's two standouts show how far the band has come musically since their charmingly shambolic debut Tigermilk: the ebullient "Dirty Dream Number Two," which echoes the Spectorisms of their giddiest moment yet, "Lazy Line Painter Jane," and the frisky title track, which is carried along by the handclaps and galloping piano that have become B&S hallmarks. FYI, an arab strap is apparently what you wear to maintain a hard-on; Arab Strap is also a boozy, maudlin Glaswegian duo, a cross-promotional coincidence that Matador no doubt appreciates.

Belle and Sebastian's most transcendent moments have a nascent, on-the-verge quality to them. It's said that they sound like a lot of people, but more to the point, they sound like a lot of people when those people were starting out. There's the deceptive gentleness of early VU, the oblique romanticism of early Orange Juice, the suckerpunch potency of early Smiths. These fledgling charms, not to mention the band's stubbornly winsome image (their Web site currently boasts a coloring contest, for fuck's sake), need to become less rarefied with time, though Murdoch and friends seem too perverse to approach the quandary in such careerist terms. If the defining challenge--to retain the perspective of youth--proves impossible, they'll most likely get by, as long as they hold on to the glorious mutability that comes with it.

 
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