Belle and Sebastian still combines masterful pop hooks and thoughtful lyrics, as it did when it captivated grunge-weary college kids with the 1996 album “If You’re Feeling Sinister.” Only now, the band’s sound comes with more synthesizer.
The Scottish group will perform April 14 at UC Davis’ Mondavi Center behind “Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance,” its first album in five years. “Peacetime” encourages dance in title and feel, with the band electronically enhancing its longtime status as an unapologetic pop act with indie-rock credibility. (A status reserved for U.K. and Swedish acts only).
“Peacetime” contains the 7-minute-long song “Enter Sylvia Plath,” which pays lyrical tribute to the late poet atop a Giorgio Moroder-style disco beat. The single “Party Line” is a carefree ode to modern electronic dance music sobered slightly by Belle lead singer/primary songwriter Stuart Murdoch’s signature dry wit.
“Don’t dance on the lights,” Murdoch warns, “’cause the bears eat the pretty ones.”
Things get more lyrically straightforward while remaining musically multidimensional on “The Book of You,” written by Belle multi-instrumentalist and singer Sarah Martin. A tribute to hard-won love on which the silky-voiced Martin sings lead, “Book” evokes 1960s girl groups, but with its Brill Building-esque build enhanced by 2015 technology and male backing vocals.
The band once known for acoustic guitar, piano tinkles and orchestral strings augmented its sound over time, culminating in “Peacetime,” recorded in Atlanta with producer Ben H. Allen (Gnarls Barkley, Christina Aguilera).
A synth-laden sound “wasn’t really a conscious thing,” Martin said last week by phone, but a result of Belle keyboardist Chris Geddes’ fascination with programming. “Chris has been collecting synthesizers,” Martin said.
“I don’t think we are doing anything that we haven’t done before,” Martin continued. “There were always synths (in Belle’s music), but they do kind of fill out the sound quite a lot on this record. … Perhaps we are realizing ideas a little better than we might have done before.”
Martin was speaking from backstage in Detroit, third stop on a North American tour that includes appearances in Davis and Berkeley and at Southern California’s Coachella festival.
The new songs have moved the Belle and Sebastian audience – historically a bookish, low-key bunch – beyond head nods.
“There is actually a lot of movement” among the crowd, Martin said. “We did a tour of Southeast Asia, and a lot of the most sort of excitable reactions are for the new songs. They sound so convincing that people don’t mind that they don’t really know them.”
Sounding convincing live is a hallmark of Belle and Sebastian, known for its musical precision. At the Mondavi, the six-piece core band will become 13 pieces, including a trumpet player and a string section.
The core band members all live in Glasgow, Martin said, and saw each other during a group hiatus called by Murdoch so he could write and direct the 2014 pop musical film “God Help the Girl.” The film stars Emily Browning (“Sucker Punch”) as a depressed Scottish girl who finds an outlet in playing music.
“I helped out a lot on Stuart’s film,” Martin said. “We all kind of did.” Murdoch needed the assistance to finish the low-budget movie, which played the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
Reviewers found the film pretty but lightweight and “twee,” a term often applied to Belle and Sebastian’s music. The descriptor has followed the band since “Sinister,” which hit the same disaffected-youth themes (frustrating sexual experimentation, the older generation’s unrealistic expectations) as grunge but lacked its roots in punk rock. Murdoch’s gentler-Ray Davies vocal delivery was more plaintive than that of grunge frontmen, and his songs more prone to allegory.
Belle’s music never will resonate with the bros. But a loyal indie-music audience has stuck with a band that can take years between albums. Though not a big commercial success, Belle has made its best showings on the Billboard album chart with its most recent records, “Peacetime” (No. 28) and 2010’s “Belle and Sebastian Write About Love” (No. 15), indicating a cult status that has grown over time.
Music critics have been steadfast in praising the band. Belle amassed an average career score of 75 out of 100 points on the review aggregate site Metacritic.com.
“Peacetime” is drawing slightly less rapturous reviews than past records. But Martin said that’s understandable, since it traverses musical categories. Though the synth is strong on several songs, the album’s most striking track, a catchy ode to resilience titled “Nobody’s Empire” (inspired by Murdoch’s battle with chronic fatigue syndrome as a younger man) is neither disco nor EDM. Other “Peacetime” songs “could have been on the first four albums,” Martin said.
“Things that get five-star reviews tend to be of a consistent genre throughout the record,” she continued. “We have made a record that people will not say, ‘I love absolutely every one of those songs equally.’ People are gonna have favorites.”
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.