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Belle & Sebastian add luster to pop

Intelligent pop music is in short supply these days, as we all know from seeing the fabricated, mass-produced ``pop idols'' who clutter the airwaves. Give a warm welcome, then, to Belle & Sebastian, a Scottish group that restores dignity to the genre with its delicate ly knit songs that actually challenge the mind and that don't rip you off.

Belle & Sebastian has affectionately been called ``twee pop,'' and there's indeed a lightweight air to some of their material. But the 5-year-old group has grown to where it has a deep enough repertory - and enough subtly stitched, even danceable grooves amid a basic dreaminess - to put on a finely tuned show that drew 2,800 fans to the Orpheum last night.

What especially distinguishes Belle & Sebastian from many groups today is its sense of history. You might hear a Buddy Holly rhythmic line, a Dire Straits guitar figure, or a baroque Beach Boys harmony paying homage to ``Good Vibrations.'' The retro touches are appealing, but never overworked, for Belle & Sebastian is all about careful balance and structure. And the group used a four-piece string section that lent added dimension and taste.

Singer Stuart Murdoch was the riveting focal point, and his airy tenor vocals were reminiscent of another Scottish hitmaker from the past, Al Stewart, a fellow Glasgow product who scored two Top Ten hits in the late '70s with ``Year of the Cat'' and ``Time Passages.'' Murdoch also revealed he was a Red Sox fan (!) and his baseball interests might explain ``Piazza, New York Catcher,'' a highlight of the set.

Using some of the most sophisticated lighting effects of the year, Murdoch & Co. captivated the crowd with such breezily syncopated tracks as ``You Don't Send Me'' and ``Stay Loose,'' while additional singers Stevie Jackson and Sarah Martin sang an occasional lead to further confirm this group's aspiring nature.

Opener Rasputina, a trio fronted by two cellists (one of whom, Melora Creager, played with Nirvana on its final tour), left a baffling impression at first with some strangely dysfunctional original songs, but then won over the crowd with inventive versions of Heart's ``Barracuda'' and Led Zeppelin's ``Rock and Roll.''

(Belle & Sebastian with Rasputina; At the Orpheum Theatre, last night.)

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