BELLE & SEBASTIAN with the NEW PORNOGRAPHERS at the Docks (11 Polson), Saturday (February 25), doors 7:30 pm. All ages. $35.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
The downside of being a cult pop band with a devoted fan base is that your obsessive acolytes don't always deal so well with change.
Question is, how's a growing artist supposed to deal with the backlash?
If you're Glaswegian cardigan-pop sweethearts Belle & Sebastian, who caused a minor ruckus when they recruited high-gloss producer Trevor Horn (Frankie Goes to Hollywood) to beef up their trademark twee jangle on their last "official" album, 2003's Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Matador), you don't go the route of slagging off fans in the press or penning online treatises trashing haters.
Instead, the suave Scots opted to let disappointed customers hang themselves by packaging their latest disc, The Life Pursuit, with stylishly designed liner notes made up of all the Stupid Fan Questions posted by visitors on the B&S official website - and the band members' wry responses.
"I love the one where Richard [drummer Colburn] answers, 'Do you think and do the exact same things you did nine years ago?'" chortles singer/violinist Sarah Martin over the phone while sipping a cuppa tea.
What will the cybercrowd will make of The Life Pursuit's funked-up horns, Bowieisms and 70s glam swagger?
"Nobody's done an out-and-out attack on the shift in our sound. There just seems to be a low-volume whinging from certain sectors of the fan base. Stevie [Jackson] and Chris [Geddes] are the only ones who look at the forum and, apparently, this is our best album other than Tigermilk and If You're Feeling Sinister. Both of which," Martin adds facetiously, "will obviously never be beaten."
Hopefully, fans will be so entranced by Stuart Murdoch's hip-swivelling Marc Bolan impersonations and the gleefully sexed-up brassy bounce of tracks like White Collar Boy and Sukie In The Graveyard that they'll forget to cavil over B&S's selection of Tony Hoffer - the man behind Beck's Midnite Vultures gaffe - to produce The Life Pursuit.
Hoffer actually acquits himself marvellously well, handling the retro references in a wholly natural way that never feels like a Belle & Sebastian In The 70s-style kitschy pastiche. For her part, Martin - who cites the "totally Queen" Boy With The Arab Strap as proof of the fact that B&S were always down with 70s rock - says the band struggled with choosing the right producer.
"We wanted to make a modern-sounding record and didn't think the songs were in the style Trevor would do best. So we rang Nick Launay, who worked on the last Nick Cave album, and he seemed like such a lovely guy we couldn't imagine not working with him.
"Tony Hoffer actually called us, not the other way around, and the things he wanted to do with the songs were really interesting. Nick just wanted to put us in a room and record us, but Tony would make drawings of these mad shapes he wanted the songs to be - one track was a giant rounded square, and another one was a big messy star.
"I know it sounds ridiculous," Martin sheepishly admits, "but over dinner, without any booze or anything to bridge the sensory gap, we thought it sounded brilliant."
Martin and her bandmates made the tough decision that evening and appointed their manager, Neil, to break the news to a terribly disappointed Launay.
"I think he was shocked, but I'm sure our paths will cross again soon," Martin sighs.
The only other bit of detectable tension on The Life Pursuit comes couched in song - specifically the downtempo ditty Dress Up In You, a bittersweet ballad about a dame who leaves her own band to embark on a self-important solo career. Based on Stuart Murdoch's comments in interviews - and Isobel Campbell's own remarks on the topic (see feature, this page), it's hard not to read the tune as a backhanded swipe at former bandmate Campbell.
Martin, who took over Campbell's vocal parts after her departure, is coy.
"That was one of the songs that got cut down. It was originally twice the length, with four more verses, and every verse reminded me of someone else. I think Stuart wrote it for this girl group project he's trying to get done at some stage, but we all loved it and wanted it for this record.
"I can definitely see some resonance with Isobel, though."