The Happiness Of 'Pursuit'

(Matador Records - Matador Records)
By Andrew Beaujon
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 8, 2006

ABelle and Sebastian album usually requires some context. It is wonderful to report, then, that "The Life Pursuit" is a terrific pop album in its own right, and that it requires no preface, no back story.

Here's some anyway. The Scottish septet's first two records, "Tigermilk" and "If You're Feeling Sinister," both released in 1996, featured songs as audacious as they are delicate, full of sexual confusion, black humor and shoestring orchestrations. Belle and Sebastian's fans, many of whom harbor an attraction to those first records that's almost certainly illegal in Virginia, have pined for a threepeat ever since, through a dark period when singer-songwriter Stuart Murdoch's enthusiasm for yielding the microphone to band mates Stevie Jackson and Isobel Campbell led to increasingly rarer pop thrills.

But a couple of years ago, Campbell left for a solo career. Belle and Sebastian quit its record label, hired legendary producer Trevor Horn (Yes, Seal, Frankie Goes to Hollywood) and dropped all pretense that its fans were interested in the songwriting of any member except Murdoch.

The resulting "Dear Catastrophe Waitress," from 2004, marked a sharp new tack in Belle and Sebastian's already erratic course through pop music. The band had hardened from a ramshackle live act to a road-honed, even strapping rock machine. The combination of the group's newfound chops and Murdoch's delicate voice and some top-form songwriting was terrific, if a little jarring considering that he used to be able to drown out the drummer with a whisper.

"The Life Pursuit," the title of Belle and Sebastian's new record, seems to indicate that the most recent iteration of the band was no fluke. Yes, Murdoch still sings about fey pastimes such as making brass rubbings, but now his tremulous voice is backed by some rather meaty fuzz bass.

Belle and Sebastian recorded this album in Los Angeles, and there is a sunny mood to "The Life Pursuit" that contrasts nicely with the gray Glasgow days that Murdoch's blood has absorbed. "Funny Little Frog," which is a Top 20 single in Britain at the moment, is a peppy number about being in love, set to a Motownish beat, with hand claps and sweet backing vocals and a completely creepy chorus that slowly clues you in that Murdoch's narrator is a stalker: "You are my girl and you don't even know it," he says.

There's funk, growling T.Rex rip-offs and even a clavinet-driven number, "Song For Sunshine," that pays tribute to the Southern Cal rock era of American music. Belle and Sebastian is making some of the most adventurous music of its career, even though, as Murdoch recently mused in his online diary, "the music that I'll be known best for is probably past."

Belle and Sebastian is scheduled to appear March 5 and 6 at the 9:30 club. The shows are sold out.

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