Between Belle and Sebastian's disco-tastic new single "The Party Line" and the cheekily celebratory title of their new album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, a lot of fans have been wondering, with some trepidation, whether their favorite Glaswegian indie-pop band has been listening to too much EDM.
But they needn't worry. At Apogee Studios in Santa Monica last night, Stuart Murdoch and company proved that, while they've long since outgrown the "twee" tag that dogged them in their early years, their music remains better suited to headphone listening in the library than bumping on the dance floor.
In a 10-song set that will be broadcast Monday, Feb. 2 on KCRW's "Morning Becomes Eclectic," the new tracks from Girls in Peacetime fit comfortably alongside the band's earlier, more folksy material — even the slinky "Party Line," which Murdoch, looking decidedly un-disco-tastic in a tan jacket and tilted-back fedora, delivers less like a future Disclosure collaborator and more like the droll Scotsman he is, clearly relishing the track's groove but never fully succumbing to it. It's not a full-blown foray into EDM — more a clever sequel to 2004's "Your Cover's Blown," the band's last trip to the disco.
As if to assuage nervous old-time fans, B&S immediately followed "The Party Line" by "leaping gazelle-like" back through years (as Murdoch quipped) to the tart retro-rock of "Le Pastie de la Bourgeoisie," from their 1997 EP 3.. 6.. 9.. Seconds of Light. After all those synths, the guitar interplay between Stevie Jackson and Bobby Kildea was as comforting as a woolly cardigan.
From there, the eight-piece band hop-scotched (or leaped gazelle-like, if you prefer) across styles and sounds from throughout their 19-year catalog, frequently swapping instruments and bringing in a trumpeter and string quartet to great effect, especially on other early tracks like "The Fox in the Snow" and "Dog on Wheels." Over the years, Belle and Sebastian have matured into a well-oiled live machine, capable of conjuring Stars-like dream-pop (with Murdoch on keytar and the underrated Sarah Martin on vocals) on new track "The Power of Three," then down-shifting seamlessly into the lovelorn folk-pop of Murdoch's "My Wandering Days Are Over," from their 1996 debut album, Tigermilk.
Of the four tracks they played from Girls in Peacetime, the standout was "Perfect Couple," a strikingly weird song by B&S standards, featuring Stevie Jackson on lead vocals, commenting with Talking Heads-like ironic detachment on his friends' seemingly carefree lives ("I've seen them in the park/Restauranting after dark/Working out on their yoga mats") over jangly post-punk guitars and vaguely Afro-Caribbean cascades of percussion. They didn't play the album's most ambitious track, the anthemic, seven-minute "Play for Today," which features more Afro-pop dabbling — but maybe we'll get to hear it when they perform at Coachella in a few months.
The band closed with the one-two punch of their 2000 raga-rock rave-up, "Legal Man," and their preferred finale song of late, "Sleep the Clock Around," which like a lot of Belle and Sebastian's best work starts off sleepy before building to an urgent climax. After a nearly five-year hiatus — during which frontman Stuart Murdoch turned his musical side project, God Help the Girl, into a feature film — the band sounds rejuvenated and full of new ideas. It's good to have them back.
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The Party Line
Le Pastie de la Bourgeoisie
The Power of Three
My Wandering Days Are Over
[Interview with KCRW's Jason Bentley and Marion Hodges]
The Fox in the Snow
Dog on Wheels
Sleep the Clock Around