BY BEN E. LYTAL
CRIMSON STAFF WRITER
The Scottish group Arab Strap are reputedly one of the most "honest" bands making music today. Their subjects are bitterness and bad sex, and for critics the lack of boastfulness or titillation in Aidan Moffat's graphic lyrics translates into honesty. Yet these confessional monologues are coated with Malcolm Middleton's shy, down-tempo arrangements, resulting in delicacies baked from teen-angst and vinegar. Theirs is a music of transmogrification--making souffl out of haggis.
Taking their name from a type of cock ring, Arab Strap are probably best known for the unsolicited shout-out given by fellow Scots Belle and Sebastian on that band's third album, The Boy with the Arab Strap. Musically, the two bands are quite different. If the bouncy, wistful melodies of Belle and Sebastian are good for a late morning walk, Arab Strap are a comedown band, music to keep you company after all the bars are closed. Their first few albums were steeped in alcohol and sadness; indeed, Arab Strap's finest release, a live album, is titled Mad for Sadness, and most of its songs are taken from a record named Philophobia. On their latest album, their first released simultaneously in the US and the UK, Arab Strap take a turn for the optimistic, alluding to a belief from ancient Easter theology "that there is an invisible red thread that links soulmates through time," calling the record The Red Thread.
True to this upbeat intention, the first track closes with a contented quatrain: "It's best in the morning / When we know it won't be rushed / So leave the curtains closed / And come back when you've brushed." As with any Arab Strap song, listeners are treated to a familiar moment, sketched without sentimentality. Indeed, the real break The Red Thread offers from Arab Strap's previous albums may not be optimism so much as objectivity. Asked in an interview after their last release whether his lyrics were a kind of therapy, Moffat responded, "No, no. It's much more childish than that. I'd call it revenge," revenge upon estranged lovers who broke his heart, it is assumed.
Moffat's lyrical confessions have always damned himself as much anyone, but on The Red Thread, he seems most interested in damning the disappointing comedowns inherent in love. On "Infrared," a song about concealing the warm residue of casual sex, Moffat concludes, "At least we know we're fuckable / At least we're sated and we're tired / At least the bedroom stinks / And we know we're desired." Those lyrics also belie the new lyricism that defines this album. We see it in the repetition of "at least." More than ever before, the lyrics rhyme and revolve around choruses, and Middleton's arrangements are increasingly melodic.
Arab Strap's sound is a mix of programming and instrumentation, and the result has often been spare beats and a repeated chord that crescendos in silence, or sudden musical murk. This format is not at all abandoned on The Red Thread, but it is supplemented with strings and piano. In "Haunt Me," Arab Strap has perhaps their most crowd-pleasing song to date, a melodic work built around a few spare lyrics: "So haunt me / Cause I know / You'll keep me / In to," a double rhyme with gory details.
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