A correction was made to this review on July 10, 2006.
A logical experiment that went right on nearly every count, Belle & Sebastian — the Glasgow pop outfit that has been dubbed the bastion of twee — fleshed out its sonic spectrum orchestrally at the Hollywood Bowl, emphasizing homages in places and creating unique swirling music elsewhere. Buoyed by the effervescent persona of lead singer Stuart Murdoch, B&S shed its oh-so-dainty skin in a commanding perf that should be a model for other like-minded acts in the future. Perhaps Thom Yorke, Bjork or Sigur Ros would be up for a similar experiment next year. One can only hope.
Belle & Sebastian has been around for 10 years, creating waves initially for “Bacharachian pop” and lately for just being a smart pop band; members have never been extensively promoted in the U.S. and substantial Stateside tours have been assembled only twice for the band.
They sold out the Bowl — an astonishing feat for a band with no hits — to a mostly youthful crowd turned on by B&S’ whimsical wordplay and sweet melodies, not the sort that turns to NPR to have their tastes decided for them. The inclusion of the orchestra, which sounded like it had a few shows with the band under its belt, seemed a bonus, rather than a selling point.
The orchestra, in a number of instances, embellished the source points of inspiration — most of them related to the sophisticated pop of the 1960s — that sit just under the surface in many B&S tunes. There are the Jimmy Webb orchestrations and melodic constructions; the isolation of the trumpet, played by B&S’ Mick Cooke, in a wash of strings that was oft-imitated in the ’60s after Herb Alpert scored hits with the Tijuana Brass; and the marriage of folk-rock and strings that gave an extra dimension to records by Tim Hardin and Love in the late ’60s. Band and orch slid into the ’70s with delightful disco funk of “Your Cover’s Blown.”
Set was dominated by material from 2003’s “Dear Catastrophe Waitress,” but the inclusion of the strings and brass had their most dramatic effect in helping two distinctly different tunes swell and nearly explode: “Le Pastie de la bourgeoisie,” which is as close to a garage rocker as B&S has ever recorded, and the dour “Pet Sounds”-ish ballad “Don’t Leave the Light on, Baby.”
Belle & Sebastian’s latest disc, “The Life Pursuit” (Matador), shies away from even the hint of an orchestra and, not so oddly, the only tune from that disc, “Sukie in the Graveyard,” was performed sans orchestra. Yet as full a sound as the orchestra helped B&S produce, the star remained Murdoch, who ventured into the crowd to do the obvious — sing — and not so obvious — get mascara applied. He wandered through the violin section and even took a turn at some wishy-washy conducting, endearing himself to the crowd at every turn. This was a far more ebullient collection of performers than was seen three years at the Greek Theater when Belle & Sebastian was at the precipice of a new level of pop stardom. That hasn’t been seen in record sales but judging by Thursday’s show, Belle & Sebastian has cemented its place as pop music force.
Openers the Shins, whose inclusion on the “Garden State” soundtrack garnered them hundreds of thousands of new fans, unveiled a number of songs intended for their next album. The Portland, Ore.-based quartet originally from New Mexico is venturing into a noisier assimilation of the Kinks and the Smiths than their last Sub Pop album displayed; the “Garden State” track, “New Slang,” was the quietest song of the night and the only tune James Mercer didn’t deliver with an emotionally unhinged wail. Band tried their hand at some harmonies that were seriously off key. The more basic they keep their sound, the better.