I've been digging Belle and Sebastian's sixth proper LP, The Life Pursuit, quite a lot lately. I don't know how they do it, but they keep putting out really good records. A much more electric and keyboard-heavy record than before, I can't help but compare a number of songs to 70s glam rock and Steely Dan. For a band that used to remind me of the energy of Stereolab's faster material, I think it's amazing that B&S can still hold it together over the years. Not every band is this lucky.
A pundit's opinion of B&S is that the only B&S record you need to have is If You're Feeling Sinister. While I would not argue that the record is their best from start to finish, they have so many good songs on their other records that warrant listening too. I know a lot of their songs sound alike, but they're different enough for me to enjoy them as their own. It's kind of like the Ramones' back catalog: you're not going to find much variation, but if you can't get enough of it, you're rewarded.
One thing that has remained consistent with B&S's sound is that it owes a large debt to older Top 40 pop music. I'm not talking Human League here; I'm talking artists from the '60s and '70s like Phil Spector, Burt Bacharach, Motown and a whole slew of other pop giants. The cool thing is, the band makes contemporary music without aping the sound of the Wrecking Crew or the Funk Brothers. You definitely hear the influence, but they sound more like art school students doing their own version of it.
I think it's awesome that bands are still out there that owe a lot to the kind of Top 40 pop you first heard in the '60s and '70s. I firmly believe that the music industry drastically changed once desire and technology became even more influential in the '70s. Back when artists had to really play as perfectly as possible, there was still a human element to the music. With technology rendering more polished sounds and with labels and artists wanting to reach as many people as possible, some dilution started stirring. But that's just the mechanics; what about the songs' melodies (you know, the stuff that makes us hum along and make a connection)? They're always there, but just in a different mold.
In an age where most bands peter out after a couple of records, I strongly believe that B&S are one of the few bands that still puts out fine records well after their initial buzz has gone out. I'm very well aware of people who haven't dug their last few records for various reasons, but I gotta give the band credit for keeping going strong. Only a few other prominent not-really-obscure-but-not-Top-40-material artists (like Wilco and Aimee Mann) can have a large audience and not succumb to pitiful lows after a few years of greatness. People aren't going to go crazy over The Life Pursuit the way they went over If You're Feeling Sinister and The Boy With the Arab Strap, but there will be people that will enjoy what they hear.