*** 1/2 Belle and Sebastian, "The Boy With the Arab Strap," Matador. In British arts and letters, an effete, dissipated exterior has long been used to camouflage subversive emotions and cutting wit. For every savage George Bernard Shaw, there's a refined Oscar Wilde. And for uncouth Oasis, there's Belle and Sebastian, a Glasgow octet that's the very picture of couth--on the outside.
As 1996's "If You're Feeling Sinister" well established, Stuart Murdoch's quiet-schoolboy delivery, gently meandering melodies and ways with keenly turned phrases and attractive pop textures are only the surface. Beneath it are suspicions, fears, doubts and pointed barbs. At times musically evoking swingin' '60s London (the jazzy instrumental "Spaceboy Dream," the Jackie DeShannon-esque pop of "Dirty Dream #2"), the new album expands the debut's echoes of Ray Davies and Morrissey, though Murdoch's sympathy for his lyrical targets--often being one of them himself--tempers any nastiness.
In "Seymour Stein," he expresses frustration with the record business not by demonizing the real-life Sire Records executive, but by writing from the stance of a melancholy young man whose girlfriend has been lured away by a potential contract. It's actually quite sweet. In "Chick Factor" he wanders New York ("outer space," he calls it) with a local girl, wondering how this worldly experience will change him. His fear of the world is troubling, but it sure makes for good songs.