Found sounds

Belle and Sebastian outgrow indie on The Life Pursuit
By MATT ASHARE  |  February 21, 2006

REBORN This once shambles of a band are now intoxicated by their growing mastery of pop in all its permutations.It may be a relief for long-time fans of Belle and Sebastian to hear nothing but the subtle click of rimshot snare, light piano chordings, and strummy guitar at the start of the band’s new The Life Pursuit (Matador). They’re just enough to frame Stuart Murdoch’s plangent voice as he empathizes with a girl who’s late for class and waxes self-referential (“I wish that I could sing/I’d stay in melody/I would float along in my everlasting song”). This is comforting, familiar terrain for anyone who fell for the Scottish band a decade ago, when If You’re Feeling Sinister (The Enclave) politely announced the arrival of a promising new songwriter with the literate wit of Stephen Malkmus, the tender melancholy of Elliott Smith, and an understated, Velvetsy musical sensibility. After all, it was only a few years ago that Murdoch took a major left turn by drafting slick producer Trevor Horn to help reinvent his precious Belle and Sebastian on a brash album titled Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Matador, 2003).

But “Act of the Apostle,” the opener that reintroduces Murdoch like a long-lost friend on The Life Pursuit, doesn’t run in place. By the end of the second verse, organ fills, three-part harmonies, and a variety of instrumental embellishments have fleshed out the arrangement and it’s clear that Murdoch has no intention of turning back the clock. If anything, the successful collaboration with Horn has bolstered the band’s confidence. And it’s not long before an emboldened Belle and Sebastian (who play Avalon February 27 and 28) are off in a dozen different directions. It’s their most engrossing album since the now seminal Dear Catastrophe Waitress, and oddly cohesive in spite of its many tangents. There’s the countrified pop of “Another Sunny Day,” with its bright, jangly, Johnny Marr guitars and more of those vocal harmonies. There’s the synth-driven glam stomp of “The White Collar Boy,” with its call-and-response vocal arrangements and a chorus that brings to mind Parklife-era Blur. And the bloozy swagger of “The Blues Are Still Blue,” where Murdoch does his best to channel Bowie and the core band (trumpeter Mick Cooke, guitarists Stevie Jackson and Bob Kildea, drummer Richard Colburn, keyboardist Chris Geddes, and violinist Sarah Martin) do their best to affect T. Rex. And that’s not even the half of it. The Life Pursuit goes on to explore funky grooves with the up-tempo, keyboard-driven “Sukie in the Graveyard” and the dreamy, slow simmering “Song for Sunshine.” Elsewhere, the brisk “We Are the Sleepyheads” takes its cues from a kind of Northern soul new wave that makes me remember Haircut 100 fondly, till Kildea breaks the fey mood with a muscular solo.

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