Lest anyone think the Scottish chamber-pop outfit Belle and Sebastian have forsaken their obsession with Nick Drake and the Smiths, bandleader Stuart Murdoch opened last night's sold-out Avalon show with ''The Stars of Track and Field" in feather-light voice, as the group shaded in the melody with murmurs of cello, violin, piano, and finally, trumpet. The song, from the group's 10-year-old masterpiece, ''If You're Feeling Sinister," was its old subtly lovely, heartbreaking self; instantly transportive and able to assuage any concerns that Belle and Sebastian had left this phase behind.
Belle and Sebastian's latest, ''The Life Pursuit," is delicate and suitably precious in places, to be sure, but sounds as though Murdoch has swapped his collection of Smiths seven-inches for a stack of vintage LPs by T. Rex (''White Collar Boy," ''The Blues Are Still Blue") and maybe even caught Sly Stone's performance on the Grammys. How else to explain the early '70s, organ-grind groove of ''Song For Sunshine"? And when's the last time anybody used the word ''groove" to describe Belle and Sebastian's fetchingly subversive world of insular heartache and incurable ennui?
As refreshing, breezy, and buoyant as the new songs sounded -- and kudos to the band for not resting on laurels -- there was just enough old Belle and Sebastian (the always poignant ''The Fox in the Snow") to remind us why they were so special in the first place. That said, things have changed. Murdoch, who eight years ago spent the band's entire show -- their first-ever Boston-area appearance -- at Morse Auditorium hidden behind a bank of amplifiers and monitors, was front and center. Not only that, he danced. And pranced. And shook his booty, in a fey, Belle and Sebastian kind of way. And joked with members of the audience, even -- no, especially -- the inebriated ones.
The band's new material lends itself to dancing, sort of. ''Another Sunny Day" brimmed with supple momentum, and guitarist Stevie Jackson's lightly flashy but effective chords. ''Funny Little Frog" was, and is, quite possibly the bounciest thing the band's ever done. And ''The Blues Are Still Blue" (which Murdoch said was about ''a crazy American girl from Chicago") featured a vaguely T. Rex bubblegum-glitter vibe, and -- believe it or not -- chunky Stonesy guitar riffs. Ultimately, though, beneath the faster, more upbeat tempos, Murdoch's lyrical preoccupations remain much the same: photographs, obsessions, daydreams, goodbyes, rainy days, and thoughts of escape.
Belle and Sebastian are touring with the New Pornographers, who are riding quite a groove of their own. Last year's ''Twin Cinema," a disc full-to-bursting with pop euphoria, is the latest in a string of critical if not commercial smashes. Last night, during a tight, exhilarating 60-minute opening set, the band delivered their slightly off-kilter brand of XTC-meets-Kinks power-pop with Technicolor verve. Fronted by singer-guitarist Carl Newman, the Pornos opened with the clever, buzzing ''Twin Cinema," and briskly moved through a bushel of gems, including ''The Bones of an Idol," ''Jackie Dressed in Cobras," and the giddy instant classic, ''Sing Me Spanish Techno." Not bad for an opening act.