The last couple of entries in here have been focused on bands that I liked during the Youth Groups era but haven’t really paid much attention to in the decade since. I wanted to buck that trend, and today I’m writing about a band that I still straight-up love. The story of me and Arab Strap took place almost exclusively after I moved to the States, so they’re technically a post-Youth group, but it’s still going to be fun to talk about, and I make the rules so there.
Before 2002, I was only vaguely aware of Aidan and Malcolm. Sure, I knew the Belle and Sebastian song that was named for them, and that they were on Chemikal Underground Records, but I’d only heard a couple of songs, over a couple of years, and they’d not really made much of an impression. I read that they were dour and lo-fi, and that didn’t sound like something I’d enjoy, so I left them alone.
During my first semester as an American college student, my friends Lindsey, Rachael and I went on a road trip from Tallahassee to New Orleans, to see my beloved Delgados. It was the first time I was seeing the Glasgow four-piece, and I could not have been more excited about the little getaway. (Admittedly, I did not do any of the driving, fifteen hours in total, else I’d have been less enthused). I’ll write about that gig more in the future when I talk about The Delgados, but by sheer coincidence, their label mates and real life mates Arab Strap were playing in the bigger room downstairs, that same night. The Strap were supporting Bright Eyes on tour at the time, and came upstairs when they were done. I used to have a recording of the Delgados gig, and there’s a very audible “Gentlemen, good evening!” from Alun Woodward when they walked in.
I knew a couple of the guys in the Delgados, so after their show, we stuck around and chatted, and I was introduced to Aidan and Malcolm. Their gig had gone horribly, and they were happy to laugh about it and drink. After that positive experience, I decided that I really ought to check them out again, and I’m glad I did. ‘The Shy Retirer’ was the first song on their fifth album, ‘Monday at the Hug and Pint’, and it hit me straight away. This wasn’t the band I’d previously dismissed as being too dour and lo-fi. Admittedly, the drum machine probably cost about a fiver, but listen to those sweeping strings! And the vocals weren’t obscure mumbles, but well-delivered. And the lyrics were poignant but funny. “You know I’m always moanin / But you jump-start my serotonin” was a favourite, and a regular away message of mine for a while. After seeing the video, with Aidan dancing and hula-hooping, I was hooked.
Not long afterwards, I picked up ‘Monday at the Hug and Pint’. Firstly, I was amazed at how dour it wasn’t. Yes, every song is cripplingly sad and reading the lyrics will make you want to cry into your chips, but the arrangements and orchestrations are just so lush. And Aidan Moffat just sings the shit out of it. Listen to the way ‘Act Of War’ starts in the clouds and only goes up from there.
Then there’s the bagpipes of ‘Loch Leven’, or the insistent bassline and menace of ‘Flirt’. ‘Serenade’ is imperial, as Moffat sings of “the kind of girl I want to bathe and dance with”. Or the way ‘Meanwhile, at the Bar, a Drunkard Muses…’ segues into ‘Fucking Little Bastards’, an incredible slab of feedback and rage. So so so great.
I spent most of summer ‘03 listening to ‘Monday…’ and its companion live album ‘The Cunted Circus’. The two saddest albums for my first American summer. I also went back a little and gave their 1998 album ‘Philophobia’ a listen, and that opening four-song salvo is still incredible. The band has a nice habit of opening each album with a striking first lyric, and ‘Packs of Three’ succeeds for sure. (Click here for the lyrics, or watch the video below). The song unfolds slowly, building only slightly, but the melancholy is palpable from the very beginning. I wonder if the thick Glaswegian accent just makes everything sound more sad by default.
The next song, though, is the one that will always leave me a blubbering mess. ‘Soaps’ begins so calmly, with a slow simple drum and some strummed guitar chords. “Where d’you go, when you go?” he asks. By the time the organ is in the party, and the vocals are at their most yearning, it’s devastating.
The other one from ‘Philohobia’ that I really love is ‘New Birds’, which is just a spoken word story which escalates and the song descends into a very un-Strap-like noisy outro. Excellent stuff.
In December, the band played my student union. It was incredibly convenient. I went down there early, and talked my way inside to say hello. Among their touring band was my pal Alan, who’d previously played with The Delgados. It was lovely to see him again, and I got to watch the band sound check. They played an incredible version of ‘Fucking Little Bastards’ - don’t forget, this had been one of my favourite songs over the past eight months or so - for an audience of just me and the sound guy. This is what it looked like.
After that, I chatted a bit with Malcolm, who remembered me from New Orleans, and Aidan, who gave me a massive hug and was incredibly charming. After doors opened, Malcolm played a few songs from his solo album ‘5:14 Fluoxytine Seagull Alcohol John Nicotine’. I was mostly chatting with Alan at the merch table during this, but I remember the final song, ‘Devil and the Angel’, being particularly affecting, and ending with the lyric “your songs are all shite”.
Four songs into Arab Strap’s set, the venue’s fire alarm went off, and everyone had to go outside for a bit. “It must be lunch time” quipped Aidan. After ten minutes outside, they came back and continued as if nothing had happened. They did a wonderful low-key cover of ‘Why Can’t This Be Love’ by Van Halen. Everyone danced to ‘The Shy Retirer’. The strings on ‘Serenade’ were majestic. ‘Here We Go’ got a big cheer. I remember thinking “Who are all these Arab Strap fans in Tallahassee? How are they all not my best friends?” It was a great show, and afterwards I was happy to stick around and help at the merch table. I even bought this t-shirt, which as an adult, I never get to wear, but I got a lot of mileage out of it before graduating college.
Charming, right? The drawing’s by Aidan. I’m very proud of this photo, too, of myself, Alan and Aidan. We’re rebels.
In 2005, the band released what would end up being their final album, ‘The Last Romance’. The album wasn’t quite as immediate as ‘Monday’, but a few moments really stood out. (Also, check out the album’s opening lyric). ‘(If There’s) No Hope For Us’ was more uptempo than most Strap songs, an even had a bona fide chorus, as well as duelling female vocals. Very nice.
And then there’s ‘There Is No Ending’. As upbeat a song as they’ll ever write. Brassy. Triumphant. Emphatic. The band didn’t break up for another year, but this serves as a perfect “Goodnight and Fuck You” from Britain’s saddest, yet most glorious, band.
Since then, both members have done solo work. Malcolm’s put out a few albums, the best of which, ‘A Brighter Beat’, is absolutely tremendous. The single ‘We’re All Going To Die’ was an unlikely contender for Christmas Number One in 2007, but not surprisingly, didn’t quite make it. The album’s title track is even better. Most recently, he put out a mostly instrumental album under the name Human Don’t Be Angry.
Mr. Moffat, meanwhile, formed Aidan Moffat and the Best-Ofs, and released an album in 2009 called ‘How To Get To Heaven From Scotland’. The single, ‘Big Blonde’, is charming, and has a fun video.
Arab Strap, then. I don’t think they would’ve fit my tastes when I was 15, but they were the perfect musical accompaniment for my next stage of growing up. There is no ending.