Elephant Shoe (Go! Beat, 1999)
A short-lived run on a label majority-owned by Polygram was a soon lamented experience for Arab Strap. At the same time, the band were busy making significant musical leaps forward. “Cherubs” set course for the future with a drum machine beat set to rattle the room against an unspooling guitar line. It’s what would become a quintessential Arab Strap sound.
Elsewhere, “Direction of a Strong Man” shows the band, fresh from live touring, putting new found confidence behind a more muscular vibe. There’s a real expansion present, for example, on “Tanned” which commences with a music-box, flows into a shimmering summer sun vibe that dissipates during the verses, then redeems the mood with a luxuriant trumpet part.
Lyrically, past scurrilousness is replaced by quotable lines dwelling on dissatisfaction with domestication at too young an age. “Only when you’re wrecked do you agree with all my plans for you and me…” is typical but you could also look to the old beyond years atmosphere of “Autumnal”. Moffat’s strength as a writer is in finding an idea and then allowing it to unfold in different ways until it becomes the pole around which an entire album turns.
Mad For Sadness (Go! Beat, 1999)
Another grand result of the Go! Beat excursion was Arab Strap’s first full-length live LP: Mad For Sadness. The record captures the band at the point where they decided to professionalise, build a proper band, and not get totally pissed on stage. The result is a lean, mean, post-rock powered machine. “My Favourite Muse” remains a grand statement as the album opener, while “Girls Of Summer” is the feedback-laden crescendo that stretches out to semi-epic dimensions. It’s almost surprising remembering that there were points of comparison at the time with some aspects of Mogwai, made plainer by Moffat’s guest appearances with the latter.
The band probably did the right thing chopping off a rendition of “Deeper” that is now available as part of the Arab Strap Archive on Bandcamp given it’s a full 12-minute scorcher. The album is already a complete experience and to have a third statement of grand scale might have overloaded it. I was always surprised how well these seemingly intimate and small-scale songs adapted to filling a room. A lot of it is down to a canny sense of dynamics, with Moffat’s declamations given an appropriate bed, then Middleton setting amps to 11 where needed.