Arab Strap's "love-sick spoken word tales of sex and betrayal" get to a new level on Monday at the Hug & Pint, an uplifting, orchestrated, string-laden record that turns the band's black-and-white blues into technicolor. After a couple years off (and some solo albums and side-projects in the interim), Monday... is an exhilarating step forward for their terrifying but gorgeous vision of the after-hours world. The dichotomy between the beautiful music and self-cremating lyrics continues, but it is sharper and more focused than before.
We need bands like Arab Strap. In these times of production line pop stars and cognate, corporate clones, Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton's music remains unique, observant and callously honest. Listening to their material can be both uncomfortably voyeuristic and engagingly provocative in a way that so few of their contemporaries can even hope to approximate. Over the course of the last seven years, Arab Strap have displayed an innate lyrical talent which explores the intimacies and the pathologies of relationships: attraction, lust, jealousy, infidelity, rejection and loss, delivered with brutally stark honesty and set to a soundtrack which elevates their music beyond the miserable to the level of an elegiac lament for loves won and lost.
Monday at the Hug & Pint finds Aidan and Malcolm returning to Arab Strap after their respective sabbaticals with Lucky Pierre, and Malcolm's solo album. Bolstered by the full time involvement of Stacey Sievwright and Jenny Reeve on violin and cello, the album navigates a journey which many of us have travelled: there are highs and lows; dark nights and false dawns; getting fucked with your friends and feeling f**ked on your own; an album of love, loss, depression and hope; more musically diverse and schizophrenic than anything they had done before. As with many albums though, the real bastard was finding a title and there were many contenders: 'How Not To Meet People'; 'The Cunted Circus'; 'Loop'; all relevant in their own way but never quite suitable - if the tales contained within the album were to be given an appropriate context it might as well be a pub. The Hug & Pint.
The best pubs, as you all know, are populated with all manner of life: the loud-mouthed optimist and the silent brooder; scrums of friends and pockets of loners; the buoyant and the deflated; the worldly-wise and the wide-eyed innocents. Arab Strap, with this album, have taken enormous leaps in capturing the waves of elation and despondency that accompany us from one night to another. Musically capricious and stylistically indiscriminate, there's a bold diversity at work here, audacious and self-assured: swirling strings; dance beats; cacophonous distortion and subtle, acoustic arpeggios; sampled bagpipes; lilting piano and doleful trumpets. Joined in the pub by Conor and Mike from Bright Eyes, Bill Wells from the Bill Wells Trio, Barry Burns from Mogwai, plus Jenny and Stacey, Arab Strap steer us through club disco, piano ballads, pitch-black, spiteful guitars, wistful Scottish folk and glassy-eyed bar-room sing-a-longs in a seamless 46 minutes, full of musical quirks and shot through with an individuality that is truly unique.
The real magic of Arab Strap can be found in the reliance between Aidan's lyrics and Malcolm's musical vision: one enhances the other and if the music on Monday at the Hug & Pint is fearless and evocative, it simply transports the lyrics to another level. Aidan's lyrics go far beyond that of alcohol-soaked contrition: it's the attention to detail, the insight and the honesty to articulate emotions and incidents that we can all relate to but rarely mention in public. Sophic prose for the post-club comedown, the art lies in the commonplace and no-one expresses our frailties and vices more eloquently or bluntly than Mr. Moffat.