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Belle & Sebastian, ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’ (Rough Trade)

Belle and Sebastian are more than a band of underachieving indie-rock layabouts from Glasgow. They represent an international cartel, a network of used-bookshop-haunting, obscurantist-mix-tape-swapping types who fret over what to do about grad school and their on-again, off-again boyfriends/girlfriends while working jobs that’d be laughable if they weren’t so soulsucking. (Sound familiar?) The band rarely speak to the press or play live. Yet they’re so identified with a certain breed of rock fandom that when Lane Kim, the Korean-American music junkie from Gilmore Girls, was grounded by her mom a couple of seasons back, her main obsession was–naturally–how to score the new Belle and Sebastian single the day it dropped.

This extreme fandom is born from the words of Stuart Murdoch, Scotland’s answer to Morrissey, a handsome Peter Pan whose musical storytelling is as vivid as anything outside hip-hop. He often sings about women, in first or third person, in a faded choirboy voice–about the girl who reads books under blankets with a flashlight and “never felt so good except when she was sleeping”; the girl on the brink of a panic attack who may or may not be gay; the girl raped and maybe pregnant who never calls the police and longs to carve out her attacker’s eyes. That’s not to say he isn’t also funny as hell when describing his own little corner of the world, filled with tortured Velvet Underground fans, fanzine editors, and come-hither major-label execs.

It’s a balancing act, and with Dear Catastrophe Waitress,the group’s sixth album, they’ve decided to tip the boat a bit. Normally, Belle and Sebastian albums open with Murdoch’s voice and gently strummed guitar, a whiff of boy sweat and incense. But “Step Into My Office, Baby” swaggers into the party like a drunken junior accountant in a Hermits T-shirt, slinging British-invasion guitar twang, Swingin’ Sixties orchestral charts, and hostile-work environment double entendres (“I’m pushin’ for a raise”). The title track, with its vibes, Dixieland trumpet, and Bollywood strings, keeps up the tempo. The perky arrangement seems almost mean-spirited, until you realize it buoys another of the band’s empathetic troubled-girl tales: “I’m sorry if he hit you with a full can of Coke/It’s no joke/Your face is bleeding/You’ll soon be leaving this town to the clowns who worship/No one but themselves.”

The swollen, baroque-pop arrangements–courtesy of producer Trevor Horn, who’s worked with such unsubtle artists as Yes and T.A.T.U.–may ruffle the band’s more delicate followers. But the songs are always smart, and it’s the music-librarian’s humor that helps keep things from slipping into the maudlin. On “Piazza, New York Catcher,” Murdoch wonders about the sexual preference of the Mets star in an Old English love ballad. And on the new-wave shimmy “Stay Loose,” he’s like a fey, self-doubting Elvis Costello.

But the question looms: Why, with the future as grim as ever, would Belle and Sebastian suddenly feel chipper? Fixated fans may speculate that it’s Murdoch getting over his relationship with Isobel Campbell (a.k.a. Belle), who left the group last year. Maybe. Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, their last proper album, was apparently made mid-split, and it was uneven, with songs by other group members that felt like filler. Fellow vocalists Stevie Jackson and Sarah Martin get better cameos here, and the album feels like more of a piece, if not quite at peace. So let them all fiddle while Rome burns. There’s no reason sadness always needs to be so, y’know, depressing.