Los Angeles really seems to agree with Stuart Murdoch and the Belle and Sebastian gang. Long champions of the musical evocation of a sad, gray, and rainy Tuesday afternoon spent staring out a tear-stained window in their native Glasgow, the indie-favorite Scots took an unexpected turn on their last album “The Life Pursuit” (2006), heading to sunny California to work with Tony Hoffer (whose production credits include Beck, Air, Phoenix, and Supergrass), shedding quite a bit of the twee that previously had been so off-putting to some, and unexpectedly beefing things up with stronger glam-rock and funkier disco rhythms.
Although the band once again recorded with Hoffer in L.A., it dials back the dance quotient a bit on its eighth studio album, its first in five years. Instead, Murdoch and his cohorts return to the more familiar mod-inflected pre-Beatles café pop of earlier favorites such as “The Boy with the Arab Strap” (1998). But they haven’t forgotten what they learned the last time out, and Murdoch has matured as a songwriter: He’s no longer content to build an entire song around one precious Morrissey-like lyrical quip or the irresistible urge to trot out some horns or strings. For anyone willing to set aside their preconceptions about the band, pro or con, they’ll find some of the strongest tunes the group’s ever delivered.
The up-tempo songs connect first, and if rollicking standouts such as “I Didn’t See It Coming,” “I Want the World to Stop,” “I Can See Your Future,” and the title track never are quite as brilliant as the last disc’s “Sukie in the Graveyard,” they’re still pretty darn swell. But the mellower sleepers prove to be just as effective, nicely balancing the jauntier moments, and growing on each listen.
Murdoch’s lyrical sketches are as sharp as they’ve ever been—“If someone else is near me/You scuttle up the pavement… You calculating bimbo/I wish you’d let the past go,” he sings, succinctly sketching someone we’ve all met and simultaneously loved and loathed—and the more subtle moments prove to be so rewarding that even the over-hyped and under-caffeinated Norah Jones sounds seductive and alluring during her unlikely cameo in “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John.”
Belle and Sebastian, “Belle and Sebastian Write About Love” (Rough Trade) Rating: 3.5/4