ARAB STRAP: PHILOPHOBIA (1998)
1) Packs Of Three; 2) (Afternoon) Soaps; 3) Here We Go; 4) New Birds; 5) One Day, After School; 6) Islands; 7) The Night Before The Funeral; 8) Not Quite A Yes; 9) Piglet; 10) Afterwards; 11) My Favourite Muse; 12) I Would've Liked Me A Lot; 13) The First Time You're Unfaithful.
There is a giant, if stealthy, leap from Arab Strap's first album to the «sophomore» follow-up. What began as a vague, flimsily executed gimmick, unsure of its future, managed to get nursed and nurtured into a full-blown musical philosophy. Which, funny enough, has the same first Greek root as Philophobia — funny, but not entirely a coincidence, because the album title is clearly an intentional indication that Moffat and Middleton demand to be taken seriously.
This is a distinct possibility, especially now that they have taken a small step away from the temptations of the lo-fi approach, enough to make us clearly see that they are certainly making music, not just ambient noise as a backdrop for stoned memories of booze and sex. In fact, Philophobia can pretty well be enjoyed even without knowing that there is anything in there about booze and sex — although that's pretty hard considering how much Moffat's lyrics are always in your face (the first lines of the first song were specially designed to be quoted in every review of the album, and so they were; I'll be different for difference sake and not play along, you'll just have to hear 'Packs Of Three' for yourself).
It's not as if the words are consistently poor, they just become predictable after a while, with almost each song structured along the same formula: «Now I'll be very introspective and romantic and spiritual / And now I'll gross the nice ladies out with some awfully blunt dirty remark / And then I'll get all deep and psychological on you again / Yeah, I watched one too many Bergman films at the local arthouse venue, you have a problem with that?» As thirteen well-polished chapters for the Book of Arab Strap of the Old Testament for Hipsters, it's all fine, but getting through all of them in one sitting is a bit like trying to swallow up Leviticus in a similar way.
Anyway, the music itself, without the vocals spewing out their niceties and their turds in regular turn, has grown into something idiosyncratic. Now they are taking their cues from the likes of Joy Division, more precisely, stuff like 'Eternal' — slow, lazy, but rhythmic songs with deep, echoey overdubs gnawing away at your subconscious while in the forefront, there is something innocently generic going on, most often, one of their derivative folksy acoustic chord sequences. Only occasionally the roles are reversed, as on 'I Would've Liked Me A Lot', a seven-minute dirge driven by a minimal piano melody while the background is occupied with creaky guitars and sound effects. Real moody melody, too.
What's more important, neither that melody nor any of the others really feel overlong, because, frankly speaking, the idea of time sort of feels ridiculous with these guys. Space and time normally merge when you are under the influence of substances, but Arab Strap test that particular idiom when you don't even need substances to get rid of those contexts. They have turned into professional mesmerizers, and this time, not even something like 'General Plea To A Girlfriend' can get around to rip you out of this numbed state — tune after tune just slithers up to you like one more coil of a constrictor snake. Crappy, but creepy.
Technically, it is hard to accuse Philophobia of absolute sameness: there is a wide range of instruments tested out, from brass to organs to cellos, there is even a girl vocalist guest starring on 'Afterwards' (Adele Bethel, soon-to-be of Sons And Daughters, another indie act from the Glasgow scene), but if the overall sound has proved its independence and individuality, the songs certainly have not and do not deserve to be discussed on their own. The important question is: does the album invoke real «philophobia», or is it a cure for one? Or is it, perhaps, supposed to reflect the troubled feelings of our confused generation that keeps looking for love but only finds cheap sex instead? (Probably not, or else the album would have gone platinum faster than one could pronounce the word "philophobia"). Until the answers are found, I'd rather not even rate this sort of music. It simply refuses to react with my thumbs.
Check "Philophobia" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Philophobia" (MP3) on Amazon