Jul 10, 2002 at 12:00 am

Pretty doesn’t even begin to describe it. Belle and Sebastian have cornered the market on late ’60s Gallic/British Invasion twee since early 1996, and the group just gets better.

The album started life as a sound track for the Todd Solondz movie Storytelling. Some of the band’s original material did end up in the film while some songs’ scenes were cut. Other songs were completed, but were wildly unsuitable as sound track material. (That’s the risk you run when you leave a pop band alone in a studio with a copy of the Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid sound track.) Still other songs were written to keep them company.

The first half of the record is more filmic; musical themes and melodic cycles instead of sing-alongs. There is no “If You’re Feeling Sinister,” though “Wandering Alone” might come close. Extra points must be awarded for the band’s growing confidence in orchestration. Gone is the semiapologetic use of grown-up classical instruments and arrangements that marked the cardigan-and-barrette charm of Belle and Sebastian’s earlier work. This is a band completely at home with its musical vocabulary.

“Fuck This Shit” resembles the theme from Midnight Cowboy, while “Nightwalk” bears a resemblance to Pet Sounds’ instrumental moments. “Black and White Unite” strays lovingly into vintage Simon & Garfunkel “Scarborough Fair” territory with “Communities of prejudice will travel on the train/The upper class will have to pass the chance up of a knees-up with the gang/Your record profits will buy you an island.”

What’s amazing is that B&S have managed to write an accompaniment for a very American movie (segments of dialog bear titles like “Jersey’s Where it’s At” and “Conan, Early Letterman”) but still manage to pull off long-running and well-aimed snipes against Great Britain and its insidious class system. On “I Don’t Want to Play Football” we find B&S head honcho, Stuart Murdoch, playing more and more to his inner Ray Davies, which is never a bad thing: “I don’t want to play football/I don’t understand the rules of the game/Taking orders from a moron/Grabbing for the sweaty crotches/Getting hit by people I don’t know/Sugar, I’d rather play a different sort of game/Sugar, the girls are just as good as boys at playing.”

“If you’re a storyteller you might think you’re without responsibility/And you can lead your characters anywhere you want/You have immunity.” That’s the chorus of the title track. Says it all, really. Belle and Sebastian: Purveyors of Fine, Melancholy Pop for People Not Afraid of a Little Pretension with their Afternoon Tea.

E-mail Shireen Liane at [email protected].