Indie darlings, but also underrated craftsmen of the sonic arts, Arab Strap put together an impressive back catalogue of albums across their original run. The pleasure of approaching the band afresh is that having explored the gems on an album, there’s always a range of shiny new jewels on the next album up. Here, PopMatters takes a rapid-fire tour of the ten key releases that every Arab Strap fan should have in hand.
The Week Never Starts Round Here (Chemikal Underground, 1996)
In amid a mainstream dominated by high-octane studio-as-instrument productions, Arab Strap arrived with a curious grab-bag of home-made demos, having not yet played a gig. Credit to Chemikal Underground, most labels would have heard something this disheveled and instantly tried to fix the life out of it, losing all its charming relatability in the process.
What they must have heard is the remarkable breadth of talent on display. The album runs the gauntlet from “General Plea to a Girlfriend” with its tub-thumping beat and distorted chanting, through to the imperiled innocence of “Deeper”, a startling tale that speaks to how unknowable and mysterious the opposite sex can feel when young.
Moffat’s gift for spit-your-drink-out-in-surprise lines was in full effect, take “Blood” as a quintessential example (i.e., “I wish it was someone else’s blood on the johnnie…”). But it wasn’t just shock value, it was hard not to get caught up in the tribulations of everyday teen life whether partying, eying up waitresses, fucking up, or getting fucked up. It’s also charming to hear something as raw as the outro to “Kate Moss”, an audio verité post-midnight recording about trying to get popstar business done while still living with mum and dad.
Philophobia (Chemikal Underground, 1997)
If the first record could have felt like some kind of fluke or novelty, Arab Strap’s sophomore effort showed a band more than capable of delivering on their promise. It’s remarkable to realize that — barring very specific deployment of organ, cello, strings — everything here is Middleton and Moffat alone, reproducing the impact of a full band. This was where the band stepped up and became genuine contenders, outgrowing amateurism without turning into poseurs.
While the production is cleaner, the band really honed their approach, focusing on the bass-guitar-drums indie set-up as the core. What’s great, however, is seeing how that sound shifts from song to song while existing within a single coherent space. “Packs of Three”, as an example grows across its duration from stark minimalism to a full and vibrant space.
Philophobia struck a balance between numerous lyrical elements. First, it retained the homely details of domestic arguments, parental interventions, and gooey sensuality (“I was casually trying to sniff my fingers on the way back home.”) Songs like “My Favourite Muse” also doubled down on Moffat’s taste for the comically and bluntly quotable. He also, however, grew ever more touching and voluptuous moment of poetry — “New Birds” is gorgeous.