Looking back to the days when I was once a disaffected young man just entering college, which was quite some years back now if I were to be completely honest about it, I remember being rather stoked about having the chance to write and contribute to this shitty little campus newspaper my school department was running. That was also during a period of my life when I happened to be very much into the wonderfully cynical pop music mined by the Scottish band Arab Strap, among my many other free-ranging musical interests. And so I dashed off this long and rambling review of their then-recent album Elephant Shoe (1999), threw in two or three probably ill-advised Henry Miller references into the article (in a pretty wretched attempt to capture the aura of fucked-up romanticism conjured in Arab Strap songs and thread it to what I always love about Miller’s heroic prose, I suppose), and then comically tried to pass it off as an ambitious rock and roll think-piece or something.
Not surprisingly, the student editor who was in charge was having none of it and refused to print it; he must have thought I was being a real douche for peddling such dubious, antisocial content of zero journalistic merit, but hey. (Interestingly, another piece that I wrote for the paper that was overlooked for publications during those few months where I cared enough to contribute stuff was by another band from Glasgow: Mogwai’s seminal Come On Die Young).
We are a long way from Glasgow, so a bit more localized context is useful here perhaps (or maybe not). It’s worth mentioning that Philophobia, Arab Strap’s second album just prior to Elephant Shoe, was selected as the best album released in 1998 by the now-defunct BigO magazine – which to me, still very much an avid reader of the magazine back then, was quite a big deal, especially considering that the album was picked ahead of other certified album classics released that same year in the shape of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane over the Sea, Mercury Rev’s Deserter Songs and Gastr Del Sol’s Camofleur. Then again, readers familiar with BigO and the critical slant the magazine has taken right up to the day it folded should not be all too surprised by the BigO editors’ fascination with Arab Strap and their frank, bitterly observational songs revolving around sexual boredom, romantic betrayal or the more depraved episodes of a volatile relationship, and the subversive thoughts that come with a simple fear of actually falling in love with someone.
Or I guess we can say that Arab Strap appealed to a rather desperate demographic. Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton are disappointment artists decidedly in a mold of their own, adept at milking the airy strangeness of songs of such numbed emotional resonance as on the Philophobia single “Here We Go” – Malcolm the talented multi-instrumentalist who could make sparse guitar tones and mechanized drum machine beats sound maladroitly profound; Aidan the gutter poet who can pontificate about cheating girlfriends with the best of them.
Listening to their songs, you can picture Aidan writing them down while nursing his pint at the darkest and loneliest corner of the bar, shooting a sidelong glance every now and then at the ensuing drunken debauchery, the blowzy merrymaking, the drowsy chaperones taking turns monkeying around, and the casual, almost anarchic union of warm bodies. And in the moody container memory that the mumbled vocals and hypnotic rhythms of “Here We Go” cast, it doesn’t feel too bad to be a little uncomfortably numb sometimes. – keith.
Arab Strap’s first two albums, The Week Never Starts Round Here and Philophobia, will be reissued by Chemical Underground later this month.