Thursday, 16 December 2010

Indie Legends Pt II: Arab Strap

*part one can be found in Issue 1.4 of Rhubarb Bomb

In which the Bomb examines the work of someone who we believe embodies the Indie spirit; someone who inspires us to do what we do and is an example to all Indie lovers out there. Chances are they’ve stayed under the mainstream radar. Perhaps they’re a bit odd. Or too awkward. Or just not willing to play the game. But through their work they continue to set an example of what independently minded people can achieve. They’re Legends basically. If you’ve got someone you’d like to nominate or write about, please get in touch. This issue Dean Freeman looks at ARAB STRAP

Malcolm Middleton: ‘We left Go Beat! because we thought it would kill us, as a band. And unbelievably, Chemikal Underground said they wanted to do another album with us. Held out a lifeline, which was unexpected. So it just felt good. There wasn’t any pressure, just a keenness to do another Arab Strap record…‘

So begins the 2nd phase of Arab Strap as they return to Chemikal Underground where they would live out the rest of their career. The Red Thread (2001) also sees the beginning of much greater experimentation in styles. Whilst the production values are higher than their earlier work, there is perhaps a more complex and peculiar mood created, a sign of their growing musical skills. ‘It was recorded in winter time so… dark and gloomy and reverb-y. I think it’s our darkest album, not lyrically but definitely musically.' Certainly the echo chamber tense build of ‘The Long Sea’ owed something to former label mates Mogwai and the groaning organ of ‘Last Orders’ grinds away under Malcolm’s chiming reverb-heavy guitar to unsettling effect. But in the slightly cleaner beats of ‘Turbulence’ and the beautiful strings of ‘Haunt Me’ we can see a slightly more grown up and, possibly mature version of the band. Whereas once Aidan would dispose of former conquests with direct vitriol “The words that you used to think turned me on just made me laugh - "Do you want to suck my cunt?" in real life just sounds naff.”(Piglet, from Philophobia) Here we see a more sombre reflection, a more aged and disengaged look at failing relationships “It wasn't long ago, we went on guided tours / But I forgot what it meant, to pretend my hand is you” (Amor Veneris). And even the violence seems somehow more elegant in couplets like: “She hardly said a word again tonight, I threw a book and grabbed my keys. And on the way here I swore to myself, I'd fuck whoever I please.”(Scenery). In fact that song contains possibly the first bona fide chorus of their career thus far with the swooping harp and optimistic thrust of its refrain: “Everywhere I go, there's so much on show / Everyone is beautiful, and I stay dutiful.” The Strap of old are still clear throughout, thrillingly so on ‘The Love Detective’ as Aidan reverts to spoken word mode of old to describe snooping around whilst his girlfriend was at work and finding “some kind of sex diary”, all delivered over a bouncy new wave film noir soundtrack.

‘The Red Thread’ was, and still is, Arab Strap’s biggest selling album. It was generally well received in the press, but to some it was perceived as the ‘same old thing’, a criticism also fired at some of their Chemikal Underground peers around the same time. Which is odd, considering those albums - Mogwai – Rock Action (2001) BIS – Return to Central (2001) & The Delgados – Hate (2002) – were radical departures from their early work. Basically, the spotlight had moved and media darlings they no longer were.

Red Thread follow up ‘Monday at the Hug and Pint’ (2003) is an expansive album, opening with 3 utterly disparate tracks; ‘The Shy Retirer’ ‘one of the best things we ever did, it was like a continuation of ‘first big weekend’ with its pounding, excitable descriptions of a night on the town, or as Aiden spits, ‘The Cunted Circus’ (initially offered up as the album title, perhaps the only time Chemikal held them back…) which is followed by the delicate and aching ‘Meanwhile at the bar, a drunkard muses’, which may sound like a parody of a Arab Strap title, but once again, Aiden’s growing maturity wraps the event in the real wistful sadness found at the bar stool of many local pubs. The booming floor toms of ‘Fucking Little Bastards’ break the gentle spell launching into a progressive structure of angered noisy making, Malcolm really piling the noise on. He explains: ‘I think we were trying to be eclectic but every time we did it just sounded like Arab Strap again. If we tried to do a reggae album it’d still sound like Arab Strap. I think by that point we knew we couldn’t change anyone’s perceptions.

But perhaps accepting this actually allowed the band more freedom. ‘Hug & Pint’ is their most diverse album that builds on their previous work, displaying real flair and confidence. And for the first time, many tracks here sound like the work of a ‘full band’, the band augmented by Jenny Reeve and Allan Wylie on cello and violin, revealing a full, colourful sound of real depth. And warmth too, for this album sees the first appearance of what I like to call ‘Romantic Aiden’ – that is, songs celebrating love, albeit despite of the hurt and anguish it has caused. Though in his solo career this version of Aidan is now his default setting, at the time it was a significant departure. And rather than describe the minute details of his own incompetence, Aiden begins to dish out wisdom and advice: “sex without love, is a good ride worth trying. But love without sex, is second only to dying” - a certain sense of rising optimism where harsh putdowns and stinging, regret once lay. Most telling of all is the second to last track ‘The Week Never Starts Round Here’, during which Malcolm sings “Easy come, easy gone, kiss a girl then write a song / Enjoy it while you can, cause it wont last long / The week never starts round here, you raise your cider, I’ll raise my beer”. An ode to their younger days? Arab Strap were growing up, but growing stronger too, this being the work a million miles from the first album that song references’. But, unknown to their audience, this is perhaps where the rot set in. ‘I think that album was when we started to do more ‘song’ based songs, with a verse, chorus etc. Beginning of the end.’

The Last Romance (2006) was their last studio album
RB:Did you know it was your last when you started?
Malcolm: No, it’s called last romance because Aiden was basically saying to his new girlfriend this was the last time he was going to romance anyone coz he would be with her forever. The thing about it which I don’t like is that usually a lot of the stuff we made up in the studio, but for this we did demos for every song. It was the first time we’d done that. And so we went to the studio and basically just re-recorded, so there was no enjoyment whatsoever.
RB:No spontaneity?
M:Yeah, and that was the first time we felt money restraints from Chemikal, so I didn’t enjoy it.
RB: It sounds like a full circle / back to drum, guitar basic, but actually it was the opposite end of the spectrum emotionally?
M: Yeah, I mean we didn’t know it was the end, I loved touring that record and playing the songs live, we got another guitar player in for the first time, and songs like, ‘if there’s no hope‘… ‘stink‘, I love that one, ‘dream sequence’ was the best song there for the sound of it, so I do like some individual songs but I just think as an album, I think it lost a lot of the things I thought were important to AS. The build up. the atmosphere, the mood.

Their last album was their shortest, their poppiest and their most accessible. In fact, a very strong argument could be made that the best way to approach Arab Strap would be to listen to their albums in reverse order. First single ‘Dream Sequence’ is one of their best; a simple, melodic and energetic bounce based around a classic piano riff with Aiden darkly musing “and when I wake up stiff, please just feel free to use me / then go to work and let me wonder, what it was that made you choose me”. Despite opening, as usual, with an affronting lyric (“burn these sheets that we just fucked in / my weekend beacon, I’ve been sucked in”) the album is genuinely uplifting and forward looking. Funny too.

But it was to be their swansong. The band split shortly afterwards, on apparently amicable terms. It’s just another thing I love and admire about them; it didn’t drag on to long and they quit whilst they were still ahead. Both have gone on to have wonderful solo careers – Malcolm perfecting his forever defeated, angered introspection into brilliant pop songs and Aidan experimenting with spoken word albums and Valentines day odes. My pick of the bunch is Malcolms ‘Into The Woods’ and Aidans ‘How To Get To Heaven From Scotland’.

Arab Strap are many things, and certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, but they are certainly unique. At the time, when I first heard them, I was astounded and intrigued by the detail and despair of Aiden’s lyrics. At a time when I was growing out of traditional ‘rock’ and embracing new, more cerebral forms, the two most important bands were Mogwai, whose mostly instrumental music says, literally, nothing, whilst Arab Strap seemed to say everything. Jarvis Cocker has said that he was disillusioned in his youth to find out that ‘love’ bore no relation to what the people in the pop charts sung about, and instead tried to communicate something closer to the truth. Well, if that was truth, Aidens lyrics dealt with a hyper truth, a pure bare bones honesty that revelled in the darkest themes – not a poetic or a literary account, but in the language we use every day. That is such a difficult thing to achieve; to keep it interesting and engaging (especially over 6 albums) whilst also fitting it into the increasingly ‘pop’ structures the band came up with. For many, music is an escapism. For a listener to Arab Strap, it’s a journey into a world we can partly recognise, but, for the majority at least, choose to shy away from.

For the first timer, go see ‘The First Big Weekend’, their one and only ‘hit’, but a perfect example of where they are coming from. For an album, get ‘Philophobia’, but be prepared to put a bit of time in. Alternatively, get ’10 years of Tears’, their career retrospective. You could have all 6 studio albums, but you’ll still only own 3 of 21 the tracks on it; yet through its alternative versions, B-sides, Peel sessions, and non album singles, it tells the full story of their development, whilst highlighting a sense of fun that you may have otherwise not suspected.

Another reason Arab Strap were fantastic were that they catered to their fans. Unlike many of their mid 90’s peers, they did not embrace the new form of releasing 2 or 3 versions of the same single, encouraging hardcore fans to buy them all for the b-sides and often rubbish remixes to get it higher in the chart. In fact they very rarely released tracks from their albums, meaning that beyond the albums themselves are some absolute gems. ‘Cherubs’ EP is devastating and utterly beautiful, ‘The Shy Retirer EP’ contains some fantastic covers and a brilliant remix. ‘Here We Go’ single is worth it for it’s B-side alone - ‘Trippy’ - the bonkers 12 minute plus ‘missing chapter’ to ‘Trainspotting’. Whether people will bother to collect these records now, when so easily available on iTunes et al is debatable, but personally I will always treasure them, in their beautiful sleeves, so full of memories and feelings. I recommend you start your collection today

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