April 24, 2003

Arab Strap: A Drunkard's Muse

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There are two main approaches to the issue of musical emotion in psychological literature: the emotivist position and the cognitivist position. The former asserts what many of us would intuitively believe, namely that music makes us feel things. The cognitivists, on the other hand, argue that we as listeners simply recognize emotions expressed by musicians, but do not experience these emotions ourselves. Essentially, it just doesn’t seem to make much sense to cry in response to a Django Reinhardt song or to feel chills when the string section swells in an orchestra, since music doesn’t have any reasonable implications for our well-being. But we do feel things, and what we feel is perhaps the most significant motivation for listening to music in the first place.

As Scottish duo Arab Strap prove, there are also two approaches to emotional music. With tears drowning in their shot glasses, Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton exploit musical emotion more than most artists would ever consider. Call it wearing their hearts on their sleeves or call it sharing their sex lives with the world, these two clearly subscribe to the emotivist school. Their fifth proper full-length, Monday at the Hug & Pint, offers thirteen songs that are strained and stained — reeking of sweat, sex toys, and spilt beer (as for the sex toys, do some research on the band name). One can certainly recognize Moffat’s (by now) characteristic melancholia in songs like the aptly-titled “Meanwhile, At the Bar, A Drunkard Muses,” but there are more than a few moments on The Hug & Pint when only the staunchest cognitivist wouldn’t feel a shudder. Betrayal and infidelity drip from Moffat’s bleak and misanthropic prose like drops of water condensed on a beer bottle.

The Strap bring back the drum machine beats of early songs like “The First Big Weekend” on the disc’s opener, “The Shy Retirer,” but elsewhere the duo employ a more fleshed-out cast of musicians. Barry Burns from fellow Scots Mogwai joins the duo, as well as Conor Oberst from Bright Eyes. But the most striking contributions come from Jenny Reeve and Stacey Seivewright on violin and cello, respectively. On “Who Named the Days?,” the strings lay a bed of tension under Moffat’s monologue, sounding something like Godspeed You! Black Emperor with a drunken Scot spilling his blood in words over the orchestration. Sampled bagpipes and lilting strings give “Loch Leven” an eerie Celtic feel, as Moffat spins one of his most moving narratives. Never one for discreetness, he speak-sings, “A flash of sun between your thighs/ A perfect black shape to protect my eyes/ A swooping hawk, a dying tree/ Fuck me says he, fuck you says she.” Infinitely quotable, “Glue” contains one of the Strap’s guiding philosophies, “Sex without love is a good ride worth trying/ But love without sex is second only to dying.”

The magnificent “Act of War” enters with strings that almost immediately dispel the cognitivist view. Moffat’s metaphor of love and war puts it to rest completely: “Your hair was a call to arms/ Your legs were what skirts are for/ Your mouth was a red alert/ But your eyes were an act of war.”

Archived article by Ben Kupstas