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ISSUE 119 VOL 14 PUBLISHED 3/17/2006

Belle & Sebastian a little too precious

By Stephanie Soucheray
Variety Editor

Friday, March 17, 2006

Stuart Murdoch, the lead singer of Scotland's indie-pop octet Belle & Sebastian, took the stage at the Orpheum Theatre Sunday night dressed like Pepe Le Pew. At first, the effect was endearing: Who doesn't like a slight, impish man in French sailing stripes with awkward dance moves and a sensitive voice?

But his look, like Belle & Sebastian's performance, became a little too precious and twee after its initial charm wore off. With sunny, pitch-perfect harmonies aplenty, and enough people on stage to make serious noise, Belle & Sebastian never dove into their performance Sunday night. Instead, the 90- minute show was a perpetual poolside toe dip into what could have been the waters of a great concert, but what was instead an unenergetic show.

Pop-rock darlings the New Pornographers, a Canadian super group whose latest album Twin Cinema won critical acclaim, opened for Belle & Sebastian. The best feature of the New Pornographers is their dueling-fiddles lead vocalists, Neko Case and A.C. Newman.

The veritable Venus and Mars of current indie music, Case and Newman's vocals guarantee that the New Pornographers never sound too much like any other band. Unfortunately, Case is not performing with the New Pornographers for this leg of the tour due to the promotion of her solo album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.

Though Case's absence left a noticeable hole on stage, Newman did a fantastic job of moving his band through a 45-minute selection of songs, including crowd favorites, “My Slow Descent into Alcoholism,” and the current radio hit, “Use It.” Newman was a prompt and efficient front man, introducing the band by saying “We're the New Pornographers. It's 7:30, I guess we'll play.”

The New Pornographers hit their most glorious wall of sound with songs from 2003's Electric Version. “Laws Have Changed” and “Testament to Youth in Verse” were prime examples of the tight guitar rock that makes the New Pornographers the perfect antidotes to March blizzards.

Belle & Sebastian last came to the Twin Cities on Halloween 2003, where die-hard fans dressed up for the Fitzgerald Theater show as characters from the band's then-released album, Dear Catastrophe Waitress.

The atmosphere was decidedly different at Sunday night's show and Murdoch and company seemed to take note. “Well, it's a bit plush in here isn't it?” said the lilting Murdoch after looking at the Orpheum from on stage. “You're all a bit plush, we'll try to be plush for you too.” Then the band went into the pretty but sonically slight, “Stars of Track and Field,” an oldie for Belle & Sebastian fans. A different song, one with life and pump and vigor should have opened the show, something off the stellar new album The Life Pursuit, like “The Blues are Still Blues.” But, in a move that would be the trademark of the night, Belle & Sebastian held back, offering pretty little bits of songs, cutely awkward dance moves and bumbling Scottish chatter, but only in small doses.

When the band did play material off The Life Pursuit, they were an impressive picture of collaboration. Murdoch never sounded stronger than on “Funny Little Frog” and “White Collar Boy.” But whenever members of the band tried to elicit hand clapping from the crowd, or politely asked them to “Please rise and dance a little,” the requests seemed forced. Murdoch does have a stage presence, his little body twitching at the hips, but he never seemed comfortable owning the stage. Belle & Sebastian's music is criticized for being just a touch too cute, too tinkly and too atmospheric. It is music for sensitive wallflowers and while that may be nice music to listen to, it's not the type of music that inspires you to rise to your feet and sing along without any inhibitions.

The show's other highlights came from Murdoch's crowd-invading rendition of “Piazza, New York Catcher” and the groovy version of “Judy and the Dream of Horses” that closed the show.

At one point in the night, amidst the constant references both the New Pornographers and Belle & Sebastian made about missing the season premiere of “The Sopranos,” Murdoch commented that he would act as a preacher for tonight's concert, telling audience members when “to sit, or stand, or give us money.” The trouble was Murdoch was preaching to the choir of Belle & Sebastian fans; he made new converts out of no one.

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