Lester Bangs once famously dubbed Lou Reed’s gloom and doom opus Berlin “a gargantuan slab of maggoty rancor that may well be the most depressed album ever made.” Well, if that album’s soft-core gothic indulgences struck Bangs as particularly offensive, then it’s probably good for his own sake that he didn’t live to hear Arab Strap, the Falkirk, Scotland duo of Aidan Moffat (vocals) and Malcolm Middleton (instruments), who’ve been sleazing their way in and out of the hippest of bedrooms since 1996. Known primarily for releasing dark, dirty albums about the joy of love in all its stinking splendor, Arab Strap made their presence known, initially, with The Week Never Starts Around Here, a pottymouthed sexually explicit explication of the peaks and pitfalls of a relationship, soundtracked by lurkingly gloomy, Portisheadish guitar work: twisted “love songs” (“Little Girls,” “I Work in a Saloon”) and anti-anthems of self-deprecation (“General Plea to a Girlfriend”), all vocalized (narrated really) by Moffat with enough super-sexy postmodern detachment to make Cindy Sherman shudder. For some it was almost Eazy-E singing Blood on the Tracks in Las Vegas; for others, a bloated Berlin doing a nasty striptease. Then Guinness used “The First Big Weekend” (about Scotland losing a football match) in a commercial.
Groundbreaking musicians face the choice of building on their successes or digging deeper into the ground they’ve already broken. Arab Strap chose the latter. Philophobia and Elephant Shoe are, at best, fine examples of a band perfecting its craft, and at worst, revealing glimpses of a pair of two-bit shysters perpetrating gimmick as art. Philophobia, an epic of literary double-talk, is a two-disc circus of famous harlots and gargantuan penises set to plot lines dealing primarily with infidelity, sex, lack of sex, and, well, more infidelity. With Middleton lurking patiently in the background like the third wheel in one of Moffat’s many love triangles, the narrator weaves stories of sophisticated people doing unsophisticated things (a nice British literature lesson), from the requisite romantic quagmires to “The Night Before the Funeral” and other stories of “post-fuck” bliss. Elephant Shoe does little more than elaborate on these issues, at times lapsing into predictability. Still, only Middleton could make it seem beautiful for Moffat to call his lady friend a whore (and Arab Strap are at times achingly beautiful); only Moffat could be so penetratingly dead-pan while doing so as to make Middleton seem like a genius. While the details of Moffat’s Elephant Shoe stories are different than those on Philophobia (gargantuan penises are replaced by astrological signs, famous harlots with swarming cherubs) the stories themselves rarely deviate from the fucked-up-people-doing-fucked-up-things-to-other-fucked-up-people template set on Philophobia. While both are achingly beautiful albums, mostly due to Middleton’s alternation of coy shoegaze minimalism with virtually ambient scapes of sound that nearly wash Moffat’s accusations and admissions away, they show signs of a band playing to expectations at the expense of creative vitality.
By the time The Red Thread — another installment of neo-gothic gloom and doom — was released in 2001, the carefully alphabetized CD shelves of dedicated Arab Strap fans had been filled with enough releases to make the band look quite prolific. Singles, released in Japan, contains a few rarities but suspiciously lacks the “The First Big Weekend,” while Mad for Sadness is a chilling document of Arab Strap’s live show, recorded in 1998. Quiet Violence is a tiny-edition acoustic release given out free at three shows in 2002. The Cunted Circus is a limited-edition live album. In addition, there have been guest appearances with the likes of Mogwai and the Reindeer Sanction and side projects like Lucky Pierre (Moffat solo) and the pre-Strap Bay (Moffat as drummer).
Monday at the Hug and Pint is another party album for manic depressives, although Middleton does attempt to broaden the band’s sound in technical (and seemingly cosmetic) ways, incorporating quicker tempos (ridiculously Eurythmics-like “Meanwhile at the Bar…”) and more innovative production techniques (“Fucking Little Bastards”).
The acoustic Middleton solo album displays a perverse interest in the now-dated American lo-fi aesthetics of Palace and Smog, groups whom Middleton and Moffat have claimed to emulate.