[23 September 2010]
Lots of people write love songs. That’s fine—we need bands to paint for us the rosier side of romance, to counter the mundanity of the less-than-transcendent aspects of our daily emotional lives, including those involving the duller or more routine moments we spend with our partners. A proper love song can pick us back up, make us feel startled all over again at the power of the emotional experience, even inspired anew.
Arab Strap didn’t write songs like that. That’s fine, too. We also need bands to write about the darker side of love, to open a song with the lines, “It was the biggest cock you’d ever seen / but you’ve no idea where that cock has been.” The much beloved Scottish duo made a decade-long career out of pairing those droll one-liners with spare and precise instrumentation. Vocalist Aidan Moffat spun still-life portraits of crushingly downtrodden protagonists, always in skin-prickling detail, each character sketch made sharper against the backdrop of Malcolm Middleton’s drum-machine folk. That pattern made them one of the most consistently interesting and idiosyncratic groups of the late ‘90s/early ‘00s UK, and the group’s dissolution in 2006 left a sizeable hole in the fabric of literary, heart-on-sleeve indie rock.
Luckily, Chemikal Underground is re-releasing the band’s first two albums, The Week Never Starts Round Here and Philophobia, each in a remastered deluxe edition, replete with live cuts that showcase Arab Strap’s often claustrophobic songs in a context bigger and bolder. Both records more than merit reappraisal and anniversary spins, and it’s extremely interesting to hear the band at their starting point.
1996’s The Week Never Starts Round Here offers Arab Strap at their most distilled, a thinly produced album that gives equal weight to Moffat’s deadpan delivery and Middleton’s expert mixture of sterile electronic percussion and warm guitar work. If the band gained a reputation for morbidity, The Week not only lays the foundation for that opinion but cements it right away, quick-dry and deep. Early highlight “The Clearing” starts off with a mournful lick from Middleton’s guitar and some nicely distorted breakbeat drumming, while Moffat wastes no time revealing his power to unsettle. In a reserved, affectless tone, he tells the story of a man’s decision to exploit a woman who’s shown him interest: “I can’t explore her if I ignore her / and now the things that used to turn me off, I find endearing / and they laugh behind the trees as she lies naked in the clearing.” The moment’s made even more chilling by the distortion lacing Moffat’s voice, stripping it even further of empathy. One gets the sense that this man’s not even getting any pleasure from his sadism, that he’s just going through the motions because the motions are there to go through.
The band’s breakout single, “The First Big Weekend”, is The Week Never Starts Around Here’s other easy highlight. Moffat treats it like a spoken word piece, relating in remarkably vivid detail the events of a Thursday-through-Monday binge of alcohol, girls, and fast friendships. Middleton builds the pace of the song perfectly, letting the kick drum beget skittering hi-hat and snare and honest-to-God major chord pop strumming. Moffat serves up his dense lyrics at the top of his game. Check out just a smattering of the images he works with, taken from various points in the song:
It was a good night—everyone was nutted
and I ended up dancing with some blonde girl.
I thought she had been
quite pretty until last night when Matthew informed me
that she had, in fact, been a pig.
I couldn’t sleep so I sat about drinking someone else’s strawberry tonic wine and
tried to keep everyone else up.
Sunday afternoon we go up to John’s with a lot of beer
in time to watch the Simpsons—it was a really good episode about
love always ending in tragedy except, of course, for Marge and Homer.
It was quite moving at the end and to tell you the truth
my eyes were a bit damp.
The rapidfire layering of these bits of storytelling combine to form a truly exceptional pastiche of friends living somewhere between drunk desperation and mile-high joyous excess. When Moffat finally hits the chorus—“Went out for the weekend / it lasted forever / high with our friends, it’s officially summer…”—the moment feels well deserved and transportive. If this reissue does nothing more than to remind listeners of this song, Chemikal Underground will have done their job.
Much of The Week Never Starts Around Here, admittedly, feels thin in comparison to these highlights, with songs like “Little Girls” and “Blood” giving off an unfinished vibe. Closer “Deeper” at least earns its place with the band’s best material, and should be listened to in its entirety to be savored, rather than quoted piecemeal here. 1998’s follow-up, Philophobia, fares better as a whole. Middleton brings in a wider array of instruments to flesh out his compositions, with live drums, strings, synthesizers, and other tools doing their part. Moffat, too, raises the stakes a bit, even singing on most tracks. “The Night Before the Funeral” evinces both of these strengths, with a jazz trumpet surprisingly popping into the mix halfway through to great effect, as Moffat implores his lover to, “Lay me in a boat with my favorite things / and set me on fire and send me on my way.”
Similarly, the strings underlying Moffat’s subtly crushing barroom introduction in “Not Quite a Yes” lift the song above The Week…’s more simplistic folk roots. Moffat’s decision to slightly stretch his vocal range on “Soaps” lets it soar higher, too, building to a satisfying climax in a way that much of the previous album’s material would never have attempted.
The bonus material on both records should satisfy longtime fans pining for more material from the defunct group. The Week’s second disc includes a recording of the band’s first-ever live set, and many of the versions there sound sonically superior to their analog companions. Philophobia’s live “T in the Park” session emphasizes Moffat’s voice and lyrics in superb recordings, with tracks like “New Birds” getting real muscle behind them. Even if a new listener will skip the second discs here, these reissues stand as a wonderful opportunity to reexamine Arab Strap, a chance to prove again their seminal (to use a word Moffat would likely approve of) status and enduring talent.