You can’t always believe your ears when you listen to Scotland’s Belle & Sebastian. Its highly mannered folk rock sounds prim and polite, like an aural doily. But its lyrics bristle with sarcasm, irony, even cruelty.
Such a pitched combination made the group’s 1997 debut, “If You’re Feeling Sinister,” one of the more subtle (and more playable) albums of the year, not to mention one of the more critically adored.
The new album continues in the same vein. Its twinkling melodies, fey vocals and dancing arrangements suggest a magical intersection of three mid-’60s styles, which all cross the last days of lounge music with the emerging folk rock of the day. You’ll hear the summery West Coast sounds of The Mamas & Pappas or the early Byrds, mixed with the chaste English balladry of Mary Hopkin or Marianne Faithfull, plus the muted peppy horns of Burt Bacharach.
“It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career” might have been performed by Simon and Garfunkel in ’66. Which only mkes its mean lyrics that much more jarring. Here, the narrator nearly chuckles over a painter who suffered a stroke at 24 because the band considers his work “a sham that’s going for a grand.”
The equally withering “Sleep the Clock Around” offers an ode to a depressed ne’er-do-well, matched to a woozy moog hook. The band’s lyrical barbs can get obnoxious, as in “Seymour Stein,” which condemns the music industry impresario named in its title for daring to try to make the musicians rich and famous. Such dismissiveness blunts the album’s impact. As much joy as its jingle- jangle music holds,the band won’t come to full power until it finds equal breadth and generosity in its words.
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