New albums improve on time-tested sound

“The Life Pursuit”

Belle & Sebastian

4.5 stars

It seems to me that ever since Isobel Campbell left Belle and Sebastian back in 2002, the band has experienced perhaps its greatest period of success.

After the disappointment of its 2000 foray “Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant,” many were ready to write the band off as past its prime.

The atmosphere surrounding the band began to change in 2003 with the release of “Dear Catastrophe Waitress,” a wonderful return to form for the group.

With the release of its new record, anybody that was skeptical back in 2003 will be appeased, as it will prove that “DCW” was no fluke.

Where its last album was an affair consisting mostly of cozy, indie-pop, this record finds Stuart Murdoch and his merry band of Scots branching out and expanding their sound.

Tracks like “Another Sunny Day” and “Sukie in the Graveyard” explore uncharted territory for the group, with the former borrowing some ideas from Sly and the Family Stone.

However, on tracks like “White Collar Boy” and “The Blues Are Still Blue,” the band really hits its stride.

When all is said and done, “The Life Pursuit” just might prove itself to be the best and most comfortable record of Belle & Sebastian’s career.

“The Minus 5”

The Minus 5

3.5 stars

Scott McCaughey has always seemed to have a knack for bringing in big names to help out on Minus 5 albums, and this is no exception.

After all, 2003’s “Down With Wilco” was recorded with the help of Wilco, one of America’s most important music groups.

Their self-titled seventh record (referred to as the “Gun Album” due to its cover art) features a cast of characters that includes Peter Buck (R.E.M), Ken Stringfellow (Posies), Wilco, Colin Meloy (Decemberists) and John Wesley Harding.

The subtle combination of alt-country and jangle pop makes McCaughey’s records endearing to listeners.

The album peaks in the middle with a trio of songs (tracks five, six and seven), and it’s no wonder why.

“With a Gun” features some provocative lyrics and a solid musical base constructed by Wilco, while “Twilight Distillery” features the biggest hooks on the whole album.

But it’s “Cemetery Row” that comes away as the most memorable, mostly because of the vocal delivery of Meloy.

McCaughey’s songwriting mixed with all the celebrity makes this record another proud piece of the Minus 5 canon – one worth picking up.

“Comfort of Strangers”

Beth Orton

3 stars

Her first album in three years and the fourth of her career, “Comfort of Strangers” finds the British songstress hitting her comfort zone more so then perhaps any of her other records.

Much of the credit for this feat has to go to producer Jim O’Rourke.

O’Rourke strips down the arrangements to their basics and reassembles them as subtle, well-crafted songs.

Orton’s voice seems to wrap itself around the lyrics and slots itself comfortably within the song structure.

Everything comes together right in the middle of the record with the songs “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Absinthe.”

This kind of music isn’t for everybody, but in my humble opinion, it is a good effort that proves to be the strongest of Orton’s career.

“The Meadows”

The Meadows

4 stars

This is the kind of album that seems to come out of nowhere and make an indelible mark on one’s mind.

The band has crafted an album of ear-catching guitar pop that features plenty of memorable guitar lines and smooth vocal harmonies.

We’ve all heard this kind of stuff before, but rarely is it pulled off this well. Recalling the sound of groups like Toad the Wet Sprocket and the Jayhawks, the songwriting and song execution can also be compared to bands like the Thorns.

All of this culminates on the tracks “Been So Long” and “Younger Yesterday.” The arrangements are excellent, the instrumentation polished and every aspect of the record carefully set up.

The Meadows haven’t just crafted a good album; they’ve crafted a very good album that, quite frankly, I find impossible to dislike in any way.

Pick this one up immediately.