*** 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.