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The masters of grim ribaldry are back

Storied Scottish band Arab Strap are back with their irreverence after 15 years. Two singles precede a brand new album that comes this spring

Aidan Moffat of Arab Strap at the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago in July 2017. (Getty Images)
Aidan Moffat of Arab Strap at the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago in July 2017. (Getty Images)

One of rock’s most anticipated albums is expected to drop in early March. Titled As Days Get Dark, it will be the seventh studio album by the Scottish band Arab Strap, which is back after a long hiatus—the sixth album came out way back, in 2005. Last September, the Falkirk-based band, formed in 1995, released their first new music in 15 years, a single called The Turning Of Our Bones, and in late November, another, Compersion, Pt.1. Both will be part of the new album.

Arab Strap are not a widely popular band. But even though their numbers are small, their followers, comprising a cult that straddles the world, are staunchly loyal. Going by the two new singles from the forthcoming album, that could change—the band could get fans in greater numbers. Both the songs are more accessible. The song and the intriguing video for The Turning Of Our Bones take off from what is known as the Famadihana ritual in Madagascar, where people bring out the bodies of their ancestors from crypts, rewrap them and often also dance with them. Macabre as that theme might seem, the tight guitar-driven music of The Turning Of Our Bones and the lyrics—witty, whimsical and metaphorical for a band that has been on hiatus and is seemingly returning from the dead—make the song quite likeable.

Arab Strap fall into the category of bands that you either love madly or hate deeply. Their music offers no scope for fence-sitting. Their songs are usually about sex, drugs and hedonism, often delivered in a tone of despair or resignation. Singer and frontman Aidan Moffat sings (usually in a spoken-word style) in a Scottish brogue over minimalistic guitar riffs, drum beats and electronic soundscapes conjured up by co-founder and bandmate Malcolm Middleton. When they started in the mid-1990s, Moffat and Middleton were a duo. Over the years, they enlisted other musicians, particularly for their live performances. But their theme has remained the same: the empty uselessness of hedonism.

It is the narratives and the stories in each song that can make them so alluring. One of their most famous songs, The First Big Weekend (from their debut album, The Week Never Starts Round Here), released in 1996, is actually a short story, narrated against a spare soundscape of guitars and drums. It’s about a bunch of friends who started a drug- and alcohol-fuelled weekend, their first in summer, on a Thursday. It’s a roller-coaster ride of a narrative that includes blackouts, binge-drinking, Ecstasy, ex-girlfriends, missed football matches, drunk-watching The Simpsons on TV, and so on, all through from Thursday to Sunday, till it was finally, officially summer.

If the sex, drugs and hedonism that run through Arab Strap’s songs was simply and only sordid, they wouldn’t have been worth listening to. But the poetry of Moffat’s lyrics, the grim black humour and the nuanced tone of sadness make the band, at least for fans, an addictive ensemble. Even their name is a humour-laden allusion to a sex toy (readers wondering what kind it is should google it!).

Of their six studio albums, many rate The Red Thread (2001) as the best but I would plump for Philophobia (1998). Eviscerating and raw, with ribald lyrics delivered inimitably by Moffat, the deluxe version of the album has 23 tracks (including live versions of the original recordings and those at the BBC’s John Peel sessions). My personal favourite track from that album is The Night Before The Funeral, with lyrics that start rather NSFW-ly (readers can check those out on their own) but then end with this poignant stuff: There’s no such thing as sin/ I said to Laura, “I hope I know you forever and when I’m going, I’m going the Viking way/ Lay me in a boat with my favourite things/ and set me on fire then send me on my way/ Kick me out to sea. There’s no such thing as sin.

Moffat is a poet. Yes, a poet whose lyrics run a bit on the raw and somewhat bawdy side, but nevertheless, a poet. Arab Strap’s music has been rather egregiously classified into genres such as sadcore or slowcore and the band has often been clubbed with everyone—from Mogwai (also Scottish but mainly instrumental) to Smog, Tindersticks, Low, even Thurston Moore. That’s a bit laughable because besides the tempo of their music (slow-ish), there’s not much that Arab Strap have in common with those bands. The grim humour of Moffat’s lyrics is peerless and in the mid-1990s, when they initially made a foray into the American market, the reactions there were mixed. People didn’t get the dark humour and wit behind the sex-and-drug-infused lyrics.

While Arab Strap were dormant, Moffat and Middleton had side and solo projects (Moffat released albums under the name L. Pierre, which also has, ahem, some sexual connotations that curious readers can check out). But with the two singles after 15 years, and a brand new full-length in the offing, a band that deserved a larger audience might now get just that.


Five tracks by Arab Strap to bookend your week:

1. ‘The First Big Weekend’ from ‘The Week Never Starts Round Here’

2. ‘The Night Before The Funeral’ from ‘Philophobia’

3. ‘The Turning Of Our Bones’ from ‘As Days Get Dark’

4. ‘One Four Seven One’ from ‘Elephant Shoe’

5. ‘Speed-Date’ from ‘Speed-Date’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.


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