Belle & Sebastian make rock sensitive. Got a problem with that?

Mar 7, 2006 at 6:55 pm

Adjectives frequently used to describe the Scottish pop septet Belle & Sebastian: precious, introspective and sensitive. Those can certainly be applied to their music, but they don’t tell the whole story. Sensitivity gets a bad rap in rock ’n’ roll, mainly because rock isn’t supposed to be shy and subtle; it’s meant to be brash. In actuality, Belle & Sebastian are a solid and, yes, rocking unit, displaying what the late John Peel once described as a “surprising muscularity,” especially on their latest effort, the brilliant The Life Pursuit.

“I think with this new record, it’s one of our more projected efforts, more outgoing in its sound and execution,” says Stevie Jackson, one of Belle & Sebastian’s several guitar players. “I think we wouldn’t have been able to do that if we hadn’t been playing live a lot more the last five years. One of the things about being sort of successful is that you play bigger places and you have to learn to project, to literally reach the back of the room.”

Which is not to say Belle & Sebastian have gone metal or anything, but The Life Pursuit is not as … frilly as previous releases (“Much less adorned,” says Jackson). The unwitting glam rock raver “White Collar Boy” features a prominent fuzzed-out guitar solo, while “The Blues Are Still Blue” choogles along on an undeniably propulsive rhythm inspired — directly or not — by British warhorses Status Quo. It’s as if the band has moved forward from their 1960s affectations and discovered … the ’70s.

“The ’70s have reared their pretty little head a few times,” Jackson says. “There are signposts on our other records … I think because the song is called ‘The Blues Are Still Blue,’ it was slightly tongue-in-cheek and slightly knowing to have this sort of Chicago blues riff. It’s sort of style and content together. That was kind of self-conscious. I think ‘Song for Sunshine’ is one as well, which actually came from an experiment where we were all playing a keyboard, and this one riff just sort of stood out. And it just seemed to suggest a Roy Ayers kind of thing. The original words was me singing ‘Strawberry Letter 23’ by the Brothers Johnson to this tune, and it suggested sort of a summery type of thing, but it’s got a very mid-’70s kind of sound. That was kind of self-conscious as well.”

Belle & Sebastian are on tour in these here United States. Also on the bill are the New Pornographers, a Canadian band with a style and ethos not entirely dissimilar to the headliner: both are large groups playing meticulously crafted pop tunes that defy easy categorization. The tour stops here March 9. Jackson says it’s going well so far, but he has a special request for the Derby City.

“Most of the shows are sold out. Somebody just e-mailed me the ticket sales and let’s see … Louisville, the Brown Theatre. It’s like 1,300? And we’ve sold 900. So my message is, would 400 people please buy tickets?” —Jay Ditzer

The saga of Railroad Earth has a lot of classic do-it-yourself moments. When John Skehan gets to the phone, the mandolin player for this nu grass/post-jamband outfit has just returned from out West. The equipment truck broke down, and Skehan had to get it repaired and back home to New Jersey before the start of the next tour, which will bring the sextet to Headliners.

That’s right — a rock band with multi-instrumentalists that fiddles with the nature of bluegrass performance is coming to us from Jersey. That’s where this band formed a few years ago, when session musicians gathered to throw instrumental conversations back and forth in a 300-year-old barn. After only a handful of rehearsals, they came onstage for a career-making show at the Telluride Festival. Soon after they began studio recordings that surprised many by employing sharp alt-pop sensibilities. But with the new release of a double-disc live set Elko, the expansive side of the group’s interplay gets a formal (as opposed to bootlegged) showcase.

The tour schedule looks grueling, but Skehan is psyched. The group’s growing faithful (sometimes labeled “Hobos” — though Skehan notes, “They seem fairly well-off … have families, and bathe”) assures the musicians of some familiar faces in every crowd. Repeat attendees enjoy sets that vary by venue (Skehan says “there’s nothing like a funky club to bring out the rock ’n’ roll”) and long pieces that have matured significantly through the years.

For instance, the new live recording of “Colorado” reflects a fourth major reworking of the song, now featuring the members trading melodic snatches of the old tune “Staten Island Hornpipe.” —T.E. Lyons

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