Arab Strap just re-released their freshman and sophomore efforts, along with the attendant goodies you’d expect with these sorts of projects nowadays – in this case, an extra live disc with each album. Those four disks provide a solid retrospective for this dark, unique Glaswegian band named after, uh, a sexual device.
The Week Never Starts Round Here (even the title oozes ennui) was The Strap’s freshman effort and opens with a track, “Coming Down,” which despite some allusions to drugs and violence, refuses to reveal what’s next. It’s a relatively vague song with hints of the mundane, to be sure, but devoid of day-to-day specifics and the sort of dark and dirty thoughts we’ve come to expect from Aidan Moffat. With the following song, “The Clearing,” accompanied by fuzzed out, booming drums, the band settles into songs which make those references manifold and into the syrupy intonation. Cut to “The Smell of Outdoor Cooking,” previously a stand-alone single, which opens the accompanying live disk, and Moffat’s protagonist takes in the smoke of a BBQ while getting loaded on cheap booze. “Please don’t bend over like that again in my face again,” he sings on one of the most upbeat songs to be found here, “‘cos I’d like to get you in bed.”
It’s these filthy, drawling tunes The Strap slathers all over Philophobia, their sure-footed, sophomore effort. “One Day, After School,” for example, sounds almost quaint with its lapping harpsichord, until you scrutinize its lyrics about a school boy getting a good wanking from his girlfriend, who then stabs herself in the arm and tells friends the boy beats her. It’s accompanied by a (surely) intentionally pathetic drum machine cadence. Similarly, “Afterwards” wallows in the delicious, drowsy aftermath of sex, yet, remains arrestingly bleak with visits to Family Planning throwing cold water on any illusions of eroticism. And the title of drowsy “Packs of Three” referring to the number of condoms in a package, concludes the narrator’s girlfriend was one short of complete protection. That ditty begins with one of the more enticing opening lines in rock ‘n’ roll history: “It was the biggest ever cock you’d ever seen, but you’ve no idea where that cock has been.” At its heart, however, “Packs of Three” is a song about infidelity and grief. Similarly, for all the seeming debauchery on display, listen closely to a song like “New Birds,” and discover the simple act of choosing a separate taxi highlighting a moment of sharp moral clarity. Moffat walks listeners through that song until the narrator reaches his epiphany, then the band erupts into a storm of guitars. It’s as if to say, yes, there’s glory in these everyday moments, these seemingly small, but tremendously impactful everyday events.
The original cover [left] for Philophobia (which means “fear of love”) features two nude figures by Marianne Greated, both raw and pink, not sexual so much as visceral. These bodies are presented frankly much in the way Lucian Freud might’ve captured them, but their presence becomes all the more poignant when one learns they represent Moffat and his girlfriend at the time. We can be forgiven then for imagining the songs on this album being heavily autobiographical.
One reason to revisit Arab Strap is their songs frequently offer crystalline short stories. More Irvine Welsh than Raymond Carver, I suppose, but there’s something of the latter’s economy there. They’re also often noir-inflected, a tendency which “Love Detective” on The Red Thread (Matador, 2001) would later embrace more explicitly, if still metaphorically. Exemplifying this story-telling territory, reveling in day-to-day mundaneity, the supreme specialty of Arab Strap’s oeuvre, “The First Big Weekend” from their debut, a song which Moffat essentially talks through—and at great length—discuses nothing more than drinking, football, watching the Simpsons and passing out. Well, Moffat typically talks through all The Strap’s songs and in the same characteristic low-affect fashion. Still, as his vocals grow more hurried during the refrain while a piano climbs beside him, the song attains an elegant urgency.
If you’ve never thought of Arab Strap ascending from its indie and post-folk roots, give “I Work in a Saloon” a listen and consider the long history leading up to Moffat’s brief, wonderfully tawdry tale of bar life. Then listen to the live version to hear their punk take on the same composition. With its measured cello and violin bowing under Moffat’s lonely, filthy lyrics, the frightening and lovely “Phone Me Tonight” sounds like an ancient dirge if not for the artificial, syncopated beat accompanying it. The song’s essentially a forlorn booty call, which also fits perfectly into the folk genre. After all, much of Arab Strap’s music focuses, with considerable nuance, on drinking and fucking, two pursuits people have been eagerly engaged with for eons.Visit: Arab Strap | Chemical Underground
Purchase: Insound | eMusic