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It's the dynamism of the fifteen songs on Pack Up the Cats that makes it such a satisfying listen. Every song isn't a classic, but each is compelling, and you'll find yourself wondering what's going to happen next.

-- Michael C. Harris

Belle & Sebastian
The Boy With the Arab Strap
(Matador)

There aren't many eight-piece groups in pop music worth their sheet music. The extra musicians in bands of more than five or, at the most, six pieces, nearly always mush up the sound and dilute the rhythm section. Van Morrison's bands have always been rare exceptions, but Scotland's Belle & Sebastian also have managed to control the excesses usually associated with larger ensembles. Instead of everyone playing at once all the time (E Street Band take a bow!), B&S use their extra staff only when it's time to build the dynamic to a dramatic crescendo. Otherwise, it's all about economy and playing in simple service to the song.

There are hints of all types of record-collector minutiae on their albums: a snatch of John Cale here, the Village Green-era Kinks there. Most of the points of reference are British, but even if you don't follow their brainwaves, there's no reason you can't enjoy the heavy melodiousness of the incredibly forlorn album opener, "It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career," or the nursery rhyme charm of "Is It Wicked Not to Care?" It matters not whether you catch the snatches of Nick Drake's "Northern Sky" in B&S's "Seymour Stein" or you know that old Mr. Stein has served as the head of Sire Records and signed many a punk band to his label.

Nah, it's easier just to groove to their sweeping rhythms and let the ripple effect take you away. Despite their rock critic allusions and intellectual cleverness (their first album, the long-out-of-print Tigermilk, was recorded in three days for Stow College's music project), Belle & Sebastian still carry enough musical weight to create something that speaks from the heart in a direct, affecting manner.

-- Rob O'Connor

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