April 29, 2003

Scottish blokes expand musical horizons, have a beer

The news: a band from Glasgow has released an album with a dozen similar songs mostly of the same high quality. The assumptions: either Belle & Sebastian have re-released The Boy with the Arab Strap, or Mogwai have finally gotten their formula down (and I am inflating the number of tracks on the album). Both assumptions are incorrect (although assumption one might earn partial credit); the band to release said album is, in fact, Arab Strap. There may be a dim recognition of the name amongst some readers. "Those guys," they are now thinking, "are the guys with the drum machine and the folk songs about the abuse of drugs and alcohol, the emotional abuse of loved ones, and the social repercussions of the aforementioned abuse of drugs, alcohol, and loved ones." Perhaps some of them are now recalling an mp3 entitled "The First Big Weekend" in a rarely accessed folder on their computer's hard drive. Perhaps they recall running across "Love Detective" on a Matador sampler and being either a) baffled by the impenetrable accents, b) amused by the pathos of the lyrics, or c) both.

Those readers with no recognition of the band should be informed that Arab Strap is a post-folk group from Scotland whose line-up has previously included vocalist Aidan Moffitt and multi-instrumental Malcolm Middleton, although violinist Jenny Reeve and cellist Stacey Sievewright are now part of the recording ensemble. Monday at the Hug and Pint benefits from the expanded musical palette. On previous albums--and most prominently on their last album, The Red Thread--the drum machine was the hardest working member of the band, laying down pulsating, truly danceable beats. The new string section gives Moffitt the kind of lush accompaniment that he so obviously needs, and Middleton, no longer overwhelmed, can focus on his guitar riffs. I say that Moffitt "obviously needs" substantial accompaniment because describing his voice as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition would be too generous; it is a look-past-it-or-leave-it proposition. The printed lyric sheets might say that the most quotable couplet from "The Shy Retirer" is, "You know that I'm always moaning, but you jump-start my seratonin," but given that the Falkirk accent might as well be listed as an additional instrument, the actual lyric is, "Yeeeuw nooh that eem uhlways moonin', but yeeeuw joomp-staahrt my sera-toownin." Listen and judge for yourself.

Still, Moffitt's voice has a kind of rough respectability, especially in contrast to the creatively challenged belters that Fox and RCA Records are duping an entire generation of young people into accepting as quality music. Lyrics, as opposed to vocals, have always been his real strength. The pulp literary quality of past albums, with their eloquent dissections of deception and petty cruelty, is repeated here. Most of the previous themes are reiterated: "Fucking Little Bastards," is about emotional blackmail amongst friends, as is the later "Who Named the Days?" Other songs, meanwhile, deal with more conventional emotional turmoil. "Serenade" is about unrequited love: "I wrote your name with fireworks in the sky, but you never turned up to see them." Other songs are so brutally confessional that I can only hope that there's an author/narrator distinction present. "Act of War" ends in a series of allusions to physical abuse: "I know that we threw some things about, and I'm sure that you got in a punch or two," and "The fact is you've always been clumsy, even with tables, or you're work, or with my heart." The material is disturbing, but not exploitive of either its own circumstances or the audience's willingness to listen; rather than forcing us to journey with him into the heart of darkness, Moffitt drives us around the city limits in order to give us the general idea. The restraint makes the album insightful, in an odd sort of way, instead of draining. The music, meanwhile, always creates the right mood: alternately hopeful and somber, jittery and exhausted, but still honest and internally consistent. While Monday at the Hug and Pint suffers from a few duds--my guess is that "Meanwhile, at the Bar, a Drunkard Muses," and "Pica Luna" were among the first songs recorded--and reifies the aesthetic distinction between subjects to be appreciated and subjects to be enjoyed, it's a step forward for a band that has yet to produce a masterpiece but is now a lot closer than before.