Good music doesn’t always come to you. Sometimes you have to find it yourself, without radio, MTV, major record chains and magazines. But somehow, in Manhattan, quality in pop and rock usually doesn’t go unheralded. Concerts by two new, promising and little-known British acts, Beth Orton (on Saturday night at the Westbeth Theater) and Belle and Sebastian (on Sunday night at the Angel Orensanz Foundation on the Lower East Side), were filled to capacity with admiring fans, most of whom had discovered these artists via word of mouth.
Unlike Oasis, Blur and other bands playing Brit-pop, Ms. Orton and Belle and Sebastian played light, airy Brit-folk characterized more by shyness than brashness. Softness, plainness and sensitivity were not signs of weakness but goals to be pursued in songs chiseled out of delicate arrangements and smart, perceptive lyrics. Self-effacing onstage, both acts seemed embarrassed when the audience applauded at the beginning of a song it recognized. Both also consisted of eight-piece ensembles that weren’t afraid to destabilize the folk songs with touches of punk-rock and electronic dance-music. At the same time, each song would have sounded just as good performed by one person on an acoustic guitar.
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Though just as introverted, the Scottish ensemble Belle and Sebastian was more of an anomaly. Its members appear to be lazy, unambitious bumblers full of private jokes they’re too sleepy to share. Members forgot lyrics, fell out of rhythm, lost their place during melodies and took long pauses to switch instruments. During one break, they asked an audience member for help in lowering the microphone stand.
But somehow, the songs sounded meticulous and exquisite, with Stuart Murdoch singing in a shy, sweet voice buoyed by a loosely knit cushion of guitars, violin, cello, brass, drums and keyboards. The approach was best summed up in lyrics from one of its albums, “Nobody writes them like they used to/So it may as well be me.” Though there is nary a low point on its excellent second album, “If You’re Feeling Sinister” (Jeepster/The Enclave), or its even newer singles, Belle and Sebastian performed mostly unreleased songs. Its lyrics looked at characters like a woman modeling the Velvet Underground in clay, a runner who breaks hearts and lots of people in boring jobs with active fantasy lives. Its knack was for simple storytelling, with each lyric thinly veiling a world as lonely as Ms. Orton’s. “Could I write a piece about you now that you’ve made it?” Mr. Murdoch sang in his winsome, genteel voice in the song about the runner. “About the hours spent, the emptiness in your training/You only did it so that you could wear/Your terry underwear/ And feel the city air/Run past your body.”
After an hour of watching the concert, fans may have loved the band, but they still didn’t understand it. “You’re so very quiet,” Mr. Murdoch told the audience.
When the crowd responded by cheering, he raised a hand and meekly tried to stop them. “No,” he explained, “we like that.”
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