There’s a fine line between precious and cloying, and the Scottish collective Belle & Sebastian hugs it with the grip of a child clasping a security blanket.
Its first Los Angeles concerts revealed it to be the most polite of bands — not necessarily a bad thing. In a time when most pop music strives to be more in-your-face than the competition, a little restraint is welcome. Proudly handmade in an era where computers are musical instruments, Belle & Sebastian (the name is taken from a French children’s book) is quaintly anachronistic. It’s always 1965 in the world of Belle & Sebastian, excavator of a lost era. It is the keeper of the baroque pop flame, reworking the mid-’60s heyday of Ray Davies at his most fey, Burt Bacharach at his most rueful, Marianne Faithfull or Nico at their wispiest and Lee Hazelwood at his most subdued.
Performing on a set that could have been used for “Hullabaloo” or “Where the Action Is,” the band — expanded from a septet to a baker’s dozen — gives new meaning to the phrase “modest to a fault.” Self-deprecating and witty, its members are the clever, sensitive kids who weren’t popular in high school; for the audience, the concert is the equivalent of a group hug. When the band brings a young woman onstage to lead a version of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” the fact that she didn’t know the words only adds to the moment’s charm, as does the self-conscious dancing of a couple who had to be coaxed into moving to centerstage. It would be unbearable if it wasn’t so damn sincere.
There is a rich vein of frustration and regret running under the bouncy rhythms of “Wrong Girl” (from the band’s last album “Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant,” from Matador/Jeepster) and “The Boy With the Arab Strap,” but it’s deeply buried. Lead singer Stuart Murdoch sounds chronically disappointed; his unassuming performance keeps messy emotions at a distance.
You wish he would get angry, or at least petulant, or threaten to stamp his feet and hold his breath until he turns blue.
But passive aggression is the order of the day — they are more comfortable marinating in their own miseries than doing something as gauche as calling attention to themselves. Belle & Sebastian has not so much sanded the edges of its music down as it has baby-proofed them. Performing at low volume, there is no attack: The drums hang back, keeping time instead of moving things forward. The vocals are conversational whispers, the electric piano and Hammond organ are hazy echoes; like the guitars, they are for the most part ethereal washes of sound. The stings can either recall the erotic tension of Isaac Hayes or the wistful filigree of the Left Banke; the muted trumpet adds the occasional mournful note.
Lushly aqueous, the music swells over the audience like gentle waves, producing a hypnotic lull that’s like re-entering the womb: exceedingly pleasant, but after a while, you know it’s time to leave. One longs for some catharsis, but until the compressed Joe Meek psychedelia of “Legal Man” that ends the show, the band sounds so repressed that (to paraphrase Dorothy Parker on Katharine Hepburn) it covers the gamut of emotions from A to B.
Jonathan Richman was the perfect opening act. Backed only by the most rudimentary drums and his own simply strummed guitar, he strips rock down to its barest essentials. His sweet ingenuousness recalls a time before the cynicism, anger and gender conflicts that afflict most modern rock. And he’s quite possibly the only performer who can make Belle & Sebastian seem butch.