The eight layabouts in the secretive Scottish band Belle and Sebastian are the new kings of the kind of teen-innocence porn that makes indie-rock fans cry "mama." Manufacturing an illusion of high school cuddliness without actually appealing to teenagers, they issue four-minute fluff balls of nonsense Glasgow stories and singsong melodies — naive and fragile on the outside, tough with knowledge of obscure psychedelic pop records on the inside. The Boy With the Arab Strap is the band's third album in two years, amid as many EPs and numerous downloadable songs-of-the-week at its Web site.
Redolent of the Velvet Underground's cutest moments, this stuff is almost closer to sense memory than to music. Slouching along with Stuart Murdoch and Isobel Campbell's breathy, uncertain vocals, and a small, unvirtuosic orchestra in the rear, the songs conjure aloneness, first love, discovering poetry and not knowing what to do about it. It's the soundtrack to staying too long in your college neighborhood and becoming one of those types who hold down library jobs.
The air has grown dangerously precious on each of Belle and Sebastian's previous records, so the greater richness and sophistication of Arab Strap come as a relief. A few songs actually read as creditable poems: "Seymour Stein," a split-level daydream in which the real-life record mogul takes the singer's sweetie away to America and his band out to dinner, holds fast to its conceit and attains goose-bump loveliness — it's actually moving. Elsewhere, there are old Stoneslike slide guitars, bagpipes and motortrance rhythms, strings, xylophones, trumpets, flutes and organs. And where too much of the band's other music has been assiduously cloistered and rickety, best heard at private moments on headphones, this album's got brilliant Spector-sound sunsets. It's worthy of filing next to the Mothers of Invention's Freak Out, R.E.M.'s Reckoning and the Meat Puppets' Up on the Sun: rock albums with an endless summer glow.