If You're Feeling Sinister

Belle and Sebastian are a seven-member ensemble from Glasgow, Scotland, that create elaborate yarns backed by equally elaborate arrangements. If You're Feeling Sinister, their lush, strings-and-piano-driven second album, stands in stark contrast to much contemporary pop for a couple of reasons: Not only is it unabashedly gentle, but the album is completely narrative driven. All the songs have the smooth flow of good storytelling; even the liner notes on band members are literary. One album-sleeve credit reads: "Isobel's thinking of giving up her college. But Isobel, who's going to support us when our dreams crash against the rocks?" We're never told what Isobel does in the group. But what can you expect from a band whose publicity photo pictures an unidentified woman who is not a band member, wearing a surgical mask?

The septet never sounds impressed with its own smarts, but Belle and Sebastian (the name comes from a 1970s French TV show about a boy and his dog) do occasionally get mired in their own sensitivity. On "The Boy Done Wrong Again," singer Stuart Murdoch is at his most plaintive and gets dangerously close to being whiny; it's hard to resist lines such as "All I wanted was to sing the saddest songs/If somebody sings along, I will be happy now," but it's even harder to believe that anything could make Murdoch truly happy at that point. Still, it's tough to find fault with a band that opts for shy resolution over self-promotion and, in so doing, reaches peaks of effortless pastoral grandeur.