As a reformed Arab Strap embark on series of much anticipated live dates, Getintothis’ Elizabeth Lawes flicks through the back catalogue to select her top ten tracks.
Scots miserablists (aka “The Proclaimers from hell“) Arab Strap are back and ready to rock once again. In July 2016, following a teaser campaign across social media, the duo enigmatically announced a short string of live dates, to be preceded by a retrospective compilation coming some ten years since their last release. Not usually one to get excited about musical reunions, I admit to a more than a tiny flutter of butterflies on hearing the news of the live shows.
Formed in 1995 by vocalist and lyricist Aidan Moffat and multi-instrumentalist Malcolm Middleton, Arab Strap originated from the small central lowlands town of Falkirk which lies almost equidistant from Glasgow and Edinburgh. Location, specifically the identity of a small town which is neither rural or urban but which is subject to the equal pull of the expansive Scottish landscape and the clubs, bars and grimy streets of the city, plays a central role in both the unfolding kitchen sink dramas of Aidan’s monologues and Malcolm’s soundtracks, vast yet oppressive, minimal yet rich with melody.
These are stories of the human condition – love, casual sex, infidelity, jealousy, drugs, and booze – told in a defiantly no frills manner. No liaison is too sordid, no bodily fluid too foul, no thought too explicit.
It would be easy to accuse Aidan of chauvinism as he recounts his stories of unashamed leering and lusting and nights on the pull, but somehow it just doesn’t wash. There’s always too much remorseful self-awareness and self-loathing, and no sense of male superiority in his words. Rather, male failings are all too real in his depictions of afternoons suffocated by paranoia, lone trips to the park with a six pack of economy cider, independent women who have their fun and move on.
To dismiss Arab Strap with lazy accusations of miserablism would be far wide of the mark, downplaying the fragility and vulnerability in Aidan’s words or the delicacy of Malcolm’s arrangements with which they combine to beautiful effect.
Songs about drink rather than drinking songs they may be, but there is something undeniably of the folk tradition present in these stories of everyday lives and loves set to music. Aidan’s recent forays into folk music have been well documented via his collaboration with filmmaker Paul Fegan. In Malcolm’s soundtracks, in among the post-rock stylings and rave pastiche lurk some heart melting melodies which would be the envy of any popular ballad.
In a more contemporary setting, Arab Strap sit firmly alongside the Scots realists of art and literature: Aidan’s words drawing pictures with the simplicity and dark humour of a David Shrigley sketch, detailing moments as mundane as the switching on and off of a (Turner Prize-winning) Martin Creed light switch, delivered in the harsh vernacular of James Kelman or Irving Welsh. They are tales of real people with real lives, the joys and traumas of human relationships, in settings as humdrum as the bus to town or the work canteen.
Before the amicable split in 2006, the band amassed a significant back catalogue from which to choose their setlist for the forthcoming live dates, having released six studio albums augmented by various EPs, live recordings and compilations, not least of which is a now much sought after 78 track boxset released by seminal Glasgow indie label Chemikal Underground, with whom they recorded all but one of their studio albums.
When I bought my first Arab Strap record (The Girls of Summer EP, on its release in 1997, from Selectadisc on London’s Berwick Street) I had not previously heard it, an experience largely extinct in this post-internet age. It is indicative of the effect it had on me that I remember the detail of the purchase, of flicking through the racks to find it, of taking it home and listening to it for the first time.
I don’t clearly remember why I wanted it, but it was probably the result of reading something in the NME or similar and liking the cut of their jib. I was also, at the time, becoming increasingly obsessed with the ‘90s Scottish indie pop scene, amassing a pile of seven inch records by the likes of Urusei Yatsura, El Hombre Trajeado, The Male Nurse and other Peel favourites since consigned to semi-obscurity.
Others have endured, of course – The Beta Band, Mogwai, and The Delgados, whose Chemikal Underground label became a focus for the scene – but none more so for me than Arab Strap, who still, alongside the many later solo incarnations of both Aidan and Malcolm, regularly take up residence in my headphones.
Wholeheartedly looking forward to these live dates, if they play any of the below tracks, I’ll be even happier. Even in the wind and rain of a gloomy Glasgow autumn, it’s most definitely, officially, summer. The fruity alcopops are on me!
10. Hey! Fever from Girls of Summer EP (1997)
None of the four tracks on the 1997 EP Girls of Summer featured on either the album that preceded it or the one that followed. Thus it stands alone, so diverse in style across those four tracks it seems hard to see how, on paper, they could ever form a coherent whole. And yet this EP is Arab Strap in essence, flaunting their individuality alongside a sheer disregard for what an indie band supposedly can or can’t do.
Hey! Fever, one of the band’s most upbeat moments, kickstarts the EP in glorious fashion, driven by ragtime piano and tinny Hammond organ, culminating in the celebratory refrain first heard in the First Big Weekend (“went out for the weekend, it lasted forever, got high with our friends, it’s officially summer”) delivered with aplomb in barbershop style. Yes. Barbershop.
9. One Four Seven One from Elephant Shoe (1999)
One of several tracks on third album, Elephant Shoe, which sees the band developing a more muscular electro style. Lyrically, too, there’s a shift; instead of the post-pub flings characteristic of previous albums The Week Never Starts Round Here and Philophobia, a maturing Aidan recounts stories of longer term relationships and tussles with the commitment they entail. One Four Seven One is a languid ode to infidelity and the barely concealed fury of a wronged partner that harks back to the analogue days before caller display and 24/7 availability. A woeful melody of beautiful simplicity, a drum machine, a kitchen sink drama.
8. Rocket, Take Your Turn from Fukd ID #2 (2000)
Released in 2000 as no. 2 in Chemikal Underground’s Fukd ID series of EPs, Rocket, Take Your Turn mixes dance music, guitars and string samples brilliantly, with areas of perfectly judged light and dark. “Everyone takes their turn at being a dick.” Quite.
7. Love Detective from The Red Thread (2001)
Coming from the band’s fourth album, The Red Thread, which reveals the sound of a band growing in confidence and revelling in an emerging pop sensibility, Love Detective is a tale of searching a partner’s belongings for evidence of infidelity, and finding more than you bargained for. A chugging bassline nudges the narrative along, giving way to a middle section featuring a plaintive piano refrain of heartstring-tugging delicacy. Love Detective shows that Malcolm really knows his way round a pop song.
6. Cherubs single from Elephant Shoe (1999)
A single release from 1999’s Go! Beat album Elephant Shoe, Cherubs recounts a tender bedroom scene after what, one can only assume, was a typically substance fuelled club night, ears still ringing from the techno, lights flashing on closed eyelids. The track is built around a claustrophobic heartbeat of a drum sample with a crystalline piano melody that cuts through the darkness like a laser.
5. Here We Go from Philophobia (1998)
A 1998 single release from second (and arguably best) album Philophobia, Here We Go is a simple tale of a booze induced tiff on the walk home after a night out. Lyrically and musically it is very much representative of Philophobia: snapshots of small moments in Aidan’s love life, described in literary detail, combined with sparse piano, minimal chord sequences, and the simple beat of a drum machine. Other bands take note: no overblown emo here, thank you.
4. (Afternoon) Soaps from single release (1998)
(Afternoon) Soaps is a reworking of a song originally found on Philophobia and released as a single in 1998. This remix perfectly illustrates the importance to Arab Strap of Malcolm’s arrangements as the structural bedrock for Aidan’s musings, the added electro beats and string samples giving an emotional depth to this wistful tale of, well, virtually nothing; silence, watching tv, a disagreement over a terrible pop song. Aidan stars as an appropriately morose wedding singer in the accompanying video.
3. Trippy from Here We Go/Trippy single release (1998)
Released as a double A sided single with Here We Go in 1998, Trippy is surely one of Arab Strap’s finest moments. After a sluggish start, this story of a bad trip builds like an out of control freight train before flying off the tracks into an ecstasy fueled stratosphere, bolstered by one of Aidan’s most grimly realist narratives and featuring a guest appearance by Brendan O’Hare (sometime member of Mogwai and Teenage Fanclub) as a bile-spewing, sugar-eating, acid casualty.
But, in true Arab Strap fashion, Trippy is no simple rave anthem; slowly, almost indistinguishably, a gentle melody appears, and then a sample that sounds something akin to… bagpipes? Acid bagpipes! And then we’re back in the room, Aidan‘s familiar brogue the perfect come down. Eat your heart out, Born Slippy.
2. Girls Of Summer from Girls of Summer EP (1997)
Girls of Summer, taken from the 1997 EP of the same name and not featuring on any studio album, is Malcolm’s take on quiet / loud post-rock at its best – mostly sparing, with perfectly judged moments of crushing guitar fused with a typically smoldering monologue detailing a summer’s afternoon-come-evening spent drinking in the park, taking drugs in the pub toilet, followed by a fumble on the sofa with a half stranger.
1. The First Big Weekend from The Week Never Starts Round Here (1996)
There’s very little to say about The First Big Weekend that hasn’t already been said, but to put anything else at number one would be, quite frankly, churlish. Apparently a last minute addition to debut album The Week Never Starts Round Here and recorded in a day, The First Big Weekend encapsulates everything we have come to know and love about Arab Strap. A blow-by-blow account of a drunken weekend on the town, it represents a celebration of youth and freedom with crystal clear definition. Quite simply, a great pop song.
A reformed Arab Strap play the following dates:
October 12: The Cluny, Newcastle
October 13: Brixton Electric, London
October 14: O2 Ritz, Manchester
October 15: The Barrowlands, Glasgow
October 16: The Barrowlands, Glasgow