Arab Strap

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The Week Never Starts Around Here , 6/10
Philophobia , 6.5/10
Elephant Shoe , 5/10
The Red Thread , 5/10
Monday at the Hug And Pint, 6/10
Sons & Daughters: Love the Cup (2003), 6/10
Malcolm Middleton: 5:14 Fluoxytine Seagull Alcohol John Nicotine, 5/10
Malcolm Middleton: Into the Woods (2005), 6/10
Sons & Daughters: Repulsion Box (2005), 5/10
Sons & Daughters: The Gift (2008), 6/10
The Last Romance (2005), 6/10
Malcolm Middleton: A Brighter Beat (2007), 5/10
Malcolm Middleton: Sleight Of Heart (2008), 4.5/10
Best-Ofs: How to Get To Heaven From Scotland (2009), 4.5/10
Aidan Moffat: Everything's Getting Older (2011), 5/10

(Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

Arab Strap, a duo from Scotland, wrote extremely intimate (and often brutal) songs, with a manic emphasis on self-loathing, and performs them in "lo-fi" musical settings. Aidan Moffat, the singer, had been the drummer in Jason Taylor's Bay, whose Happy Being Different (Anoise Annoys, 1994) and Alison Rae (Anoise Annoys, 1995) were minor statements in the genre of confessional folk music.

Arab Straps' debut single The First Big Weekend was archetypical of what was to come. The Week Never Starts Around Here (ChemiKal Underground, 1997) could be the work of Smog: dark, harsh, lyrics, spare arrangements, a sense of desolation and solitude (General Plea To A Girlfriend, Driving, Phone Me Tonight). The ghost of Joy Division surfaces repeatedly from the moribund melodies. The catchy single Girls Of Summer rounds up the year.

Philophobia (Matador, 1998) improved the sound (at least in poppier songs like Packs Of Three) and the lyrics, but Moffat was still reciting his funereal homilies in a robotic tone, and multi-instrumentalist Malcolm Middleton employed instruments like the undertaker hammers nails in the coffin. Afterwards, The Night Before The Funeral and One Day After School were atmospheric descents into Moffat's personal hell. Here We Go (one of their best) and Soaps were the season's singles.

After the live Mad for Sadness (Jetset, 1999), Elephant Shoe (Go Beat, 1999) suffered from excessive self-quotation, although ballads like Cherubs, Direction Of A Strong Man, Pyjamas, Autumnal and Tanned showcased the usual (subdued) class.

Surprisingly, the single Love Detective has little of Arab Strap's trademark melancholia: on the contrary, it indulges in an upbeat shuffle that adopts the fashionable trip-hop sound.

The renewal hinted by that single materialized on The Red Thread (Matador, 2001), which was basically an artistic u-turn, a compromise between the artist's soul and what the market demanded. Moffat's stories (never particularly engaging, and slightly repetitive) moved to the background, while the soundscape (negligible in previous albums) became the main identity of the song. This worked well with Haunt Me, but merely exaggerated the unbearable lightness of The Devil-Tips, Infrared, Screaming In The Trees and Scenery. Dance-beats propelled both the sinister Last Orders and the upbeat Love Detective (also a single) and the neutral Turbulence.

Aidan Moffat and Stuart Braithwaite (Mogwai) launched a side-project with the EP Sick Anchors (Lost Dog, 2002).

The Stolen Singles (Three.One.G, 2003) collects Arab Strap's singles.

Malcolm Middleton recorded 5:14 Fluoxytine Seagull Alcohol John Nicotine (Chemikal Underground, 2002), that features Arab Strap-esque trip-hop in a more intimate and pensive setting (Rotten Heart, Birdwatcher, The King Of Bring, Best In Me). Middleton's second solo album, Into the Woods (Chemikal Underground, 2005), is a more musical work, particularly the piano-based Leonard Cohen-ian elegy Devastation, the orchestral singalong Solemn Thirsty (with a loud out-of-phase drumming and eerie undercurrents of collateral sounds), the psychological trip-hop of Choir, the folkish Monday Night Nothing, the frantic rigmarole of A New Heart, although less successful when it ventures into noise-pop (Loneliness Shines and Bear With Me). What these solo albums prove is Middleton's skills at songwriting and arranging. Few musicians can write songs that work within the conventions of the genre while using rhythms and sounds (and even lyrics) that don't normally belong to pop music. What is distinctive about Malcolm Middleton's third album, A Brighter Beat (Full Time Hobby, 2007), is, above all, the ability to craft a dejected atmosphere, as he does in Four Cigarettes. His fourth album, Sleight of Heart (2008) is a rather lugubrious work that misleads with the verve of opener Week Off. The all-acoustic songs of Sleight Of Heart (Full Time Hobby, 2008) comprise both originals and covers. Malcolm Middleton displayed his hedonistic and epileptic soul on Waxing Gibbous (Full Time Hobby, 2009), containing Red Travellin' Socks.

Aidan Moffat adopted the moniker Lucky Pierre and released instrumental electronic music on Hypnogogia (Melodic, 2002), Touchpool (2005) and Dip (Melodic, 2007).

Monday at the Hug And Pint (Matador, 2003) benefits from the contributions of violinist Stacey Sievwright and cellist Jenny Reeve, Mogwai's Barry Burns and Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis. Avoiding gratuitous melancholy, the album's best songs explore moods that range from utter desperation to calm wisdom. Overall, it is a more engaging and credible mix of sounds and words. The album opens with an artful blend of folk (violin), classical music (chamber strings) and synth-pop (dance beat), The Shy Retirer, which is targeted to the discos, but the real stand-out is Fucking Little Bastards, a lengthy dirge that careens forward with pounding drums, distorted guitar and Iggy Pop-esque vocals. After the psychedelic crescendo of an instrumental break of crashing cymbals and violent strumming, the song restarts on a martial tempo amid romantic strings and neurotic guitars, evoking Neil Young, while the ghostly one-minute coda is their eeriest moment yet. The most atmospheric composition, on the other hand, is Flirt, that opens as a waltz-like lullaby and morphes into a Nick Cave-ian country-rock parable. On the downside, Act of War tries a little too hard to be gentle and touching, and the return of the programmed beat in Serenade ruins the smart counterpoint of piano and violin. Despite the few winners, the amount of filler that Arab Strap pack into each album is still annoying (the neo-classical ballad Who Named the Days? makes you miss the Beatles' Eleanor Rigby, the violin-driven folkish song Loch Leven is almost as predictable as the Waterboys, The Week Never Starts Round Here is an embarrassing singalong). It is not the disaster that The Red Thread was, but why not make shorter albums, or wait a few more years before releasing the next one?

The Cunted Circus (2003) is an Arab Strap live album.

Arab Strap's backing vocalist Adele Bethel and drummer David Gow formed Sons & Daughters and recorded the EP The Lovers (2002) and the mini-album Love the Cup (Ba Da Ding, 2003), an innovative work in the folk-rock vein. The stomping Fight merges the apocalyptic emphasis of Nick Cave with the fast pace of bluegrass. Broken Bones is mostly a duet of voice and drums, the drums creating the suspense that Bethel's whispers sail on. Drums, guitar and found percussion create the obsessive boogie rhythm of Johnny Cash, ideal soundtrack for a cannibal dance turned instead into a choral anthem to the dead songwriter. The other tracks of this mini-album do not stand up to the three masterworks, but the frantic Blood, the ghostly Start To End, the spastic pop tune La Lune and the Awkward Duet (actually the least awkward song on the album) prove that the duo has style even when it doesn't strike gold. The vocal harmonies may remind one of the Walkabouts, but the music is ten times more deranged. At the same time, it has none of the drunk psychedelic overtones of the Holy Modal Rounders.

Sons & Daughters' second album, Repulsion Box (Domino, 2005), is a rather monotonous experience. A few bursts of tension (Dance Me In, Monsters and Choked) occasionally dispel the funereal ambience, but not the amateurish feeling. The bouncy Taste the Last Girl became a disco hit. Their third album, The Gift (2008), marked the maturation of Adele Bethel to charismatic (if strident) front-woman while the sound got denser and poppier (Darling, Gilt Complex, Goodbye Service). It's a different band, almost bombastic and hypercinetic.

The 36-minute album The Last Romance (Chemikal Underground, 2005 - Transdreamer, 2006), arranged with a plethora of guitars, keyboards, strings and horns, is awfully bombastic by their standards, but, at the same time, bestows a new sense of purpose on Moffat's usual psychodramas (Stink, Confessions of a Big Brother) while allowing the pop allure of Dream Sequence, Speed-Date and No Hope for Us to shine uninhibited.

Ten Years of Tears (Chemikal Underground, 2007) is a career retrospective.

Aidan Moffat then launched another project, the Best-Ofs, that debuted with the mediocre How to Get To Heaven From Scotland (2009).

Eight years in the making, Everything's Getting Older (2011) was a collaboration between Aidan Moffat and composer/arranger Bill Wells that mainly amounted to dressing up in elegant and somber structures (frequently derived from jazz and minimalism) some bleak introverted meditations (notably Copper Top, Cages and Dinner Time).

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