February 23, 2006

Scottish Delight

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As a country that resists trends and hype, Scotland has served as a much-needed foil to the NME-factory of indie-propaganda (does “the biggest band since Oasis!” sound familiar to anyone else?) that plagues almost every “up-and-coming” indie band emerging from England. In response to the throwaway, trendy aesthetic of their southern neighbor, Scotland has stockpiled a modest but respectable pool of artists that have actually been around longer than a year or two. The last “trend” Scotland pioneered was the mid 90s “Scottish pop renaissance” in Glasgow. Between the precious twee-pop of Belle & Sebastian, the luminous pop of Camera Obscura, and the multitextural melancholy of The Delgados, a tight alliance formed and set a high standard for Scottish pop.

But amidst the flurried excitement over the new redefined Scottish contemporary pop, the men of Arab Strap willfully distanced themselves from the new Scottish indie “celebrities” and were content to watch from the outside. This distance never stopped a loyal critic and listener following (BBC Radio One proclaimed their debut single “The First Big Weekend” to be the “record of the decade”), but a prevailing sense of alienation, loneliness, and depression still seeped into all their music.

Formed in 1995 in the rural town of Falkirk, Arab Strap has always reflected the depressing banality and boredom of their small hometown. But with their sixth album, The Last Romance, vocalist Aidan Moffat and instrumentalist Malcolm Middleton have been making subtle shifts towards a less bleak outlook. The Last Romance still deals almost exclusively with women, Moffat’s favorite topic. (Specifically, heartbreak. More specifically, the chasm between the reality of unfulfilling, superficial sex and the fantasy of his relentless search for “true love.”)

Yet amidst the darkness, there are moments of intimacy and revelation that redeem the pessimism and instill a tiny bit of hope in the listener.

It’s pretty evident that Arab Strap’s been to hell and back, but The Last Romance is almost refreshing in its infrequent moments of uplifting clarity, and, dare I say it, optimism (even if it is tinged by reality and experience). The intimacy and tenderness of the morning after in “Come Round and Love Me” is accentuated by the interplay of a single cello and Moffat’s gruff baritone, occasionally traced by a breathy female vocalist. Moffat carefully constructs a painfully vivid world of morning afterglow in a way that is neither sentimental nor jaded (“But come round and show me/ Sigh and rumble below me / And we’ll make the noises we make / Until we both laugh and both shake”). Despite the track’s relative gushiness, this plaintive intimacy delicately harnesses the earlier, more abrasive expressiveness of Arab Strap.

But, as Moffat once said, “every silver lining has a cloud,” and The Last Romance still lives up to their original moniker of “miserabilists.”

Moffat, a published poet, has developed an identity as a storyteller of urban desolation and waste. In the spoken-word haze of “Chat In Amsterdam, Winter 2003,” Moffat mutters “I’ve had the same look on my face for the past two lonely years/ 24 months of bargain pills, and cheeky lines and stolen beers.” His acute displacement in a foreign country creates a rare nostalgia for Glasgow, and as this realization comes into being, the monotonous rhythm section gives way to a tangled mass of feedback and reverb.

The duet “[If There’s] No Hope For Us,” a painful recounting of an unfaithful couple, serves as a familiar touchstone for Arab Strap fans. Although the song deals with the harsh reality of adultery and loss, Moffat approaches it with a tone of inevitable resignation (“If our words were once sweethearts, now they’re ugly violent thugs / How did our language come to this, we speak in grunts and sighs and shrugs”). The professed masochism of “Confessions of a Big Brother” (“Sometimes there’s nothing sexier than knowing that you’re doomed”) gives way to the weariness of an older man imparting fatherly advice to his brother (“Try and be a gentleman and always tell the truth”).

The overarching theme of The Last Romance tellingly lies in the single “Dream Sequence.” A gorgeous, energetic piano hook and a syncopated, grooving drum beat invest the track with continuity and momentum and remove pressure from Moffat to match his vocal timbre to the piano’s driving exuberance. Although “Dream Sequence” resists easy closure, you can’t help but fantasize that Moffat is finally happy. At the close of the song, Moffat sings “there’s no better journey than me on my way to you.” After a tumultuous decade-long career, you can’t help but think Moffat is finally singing to us.

Archived article by Natasha Pickowicz