ARAB STRAP: THE WEEK NEVER STARTS ROUND HERE (1996)
1) Coming Down; 2) The Clearing; 3) Driving; 4) Gourmet; 5) I Work In A Saloon; 6) Wasting; 7) General Plea To A Girlfriend; 8) The First Big Weekend; 9) Kate Moss; 10) Little Girls; 11) Phone Me Tonight; 12) Blood; 13) Deeper.
Nor does anything else, for that matter. Arab Strap, a couple of wasted twenty-three year olds from Falkirk, Scotland (Aidan Moffet on vocals and occasional keyboards, Malcolm Middleton on everything else), certainly did not have any such specific thing as «songwriting» on their minds when, still under the influence of another nasty hangover, I'd warrant, they left the tapes rolling and recorded their unintentionally uninhibited masterpiece (at least, that's more or less what Middleton himself has later said about this record).
The sound of Arab Strap is frequently described as «depressing». Because, you know, the songs are melodically dark and minor-keyed and droney and the si... uh, the wordist keeps talking about all the girls that he has fucked in so many ways and how goddamn unhappy it makes him. (See, told you, sex isn't everything). But it is really no fun to just separate all «negative atmosphere» music into «aggressive» and «depressive». Surely the human spirit is much more complicated than that. To me, The Cure and Portishead sound depressive; Nick Drake and Lou Reed don't (or, at least, very rarely do). Put them all in the same category and it's as if you invite people to view them as interchangeable, but are they?
Anyway, «depression» in music, to me, is a very conscious state of affairs; it almost necessarily involves a little philosophic activity. Jim Morrison and Robert Smith seem to have decided, in choosing between several possibilities, that the world is a rotten place, and their musical goal is to join spirits with the faithful and convince the doubtful. Arab Strap do not create that atmosphere — they just leave the tapes rolling, and everything else is a stunned, hazey, drugged-out stupor. It's as if someone blackjacked both of them real good, exactly two seconds prior to the recording, or, from a less violent standpoint, mesmerized the two, dissipating a large part of their humanity. One thing's for certain: if either of them walked into their local bar in the kind of state they display here, only the cruellest of bartenders would refrain from calling an ambulance.
Melodies: mostly generic «dark folk» chord sequences, played on acoustic guitars (cellos, pianos, etc., sometimes beef up the sound, but not all that often, and always in the same muddy lo-fi manner). Very, Very, Very heavy on bass: be careful about setting up your amps, or stuff like 'Coming Down' will induce permanent damage of the eardrums — or, at least, the flooring. (This is not exactly «depressing» — but quite representative of a real tough hangover). Drumming is mostly done by machines, just to show how little a fuck they give about «good sound». But this, at least, is sort of a generic indie thing.
Lyrics: ranging from "Don't try and tell me Kate Moss ain't pretty" to "Phone me tomorrow when you're sober" to the totally erotocalyptic "I lick her slit, as it tightens its grip". Overall message is something like: «Trapped between drinking and fucking, trying hard to get the transcendental significance of both of these things, but too much of a stoned brainless moron to succeed».
Vocals: No idea if Moffat cannot sing, because he honestly never even tries (with the exception of 'General Plea To A Girlfriend', on which the vocals are atrocious, but there is every reason to believe this is intentional, what with the «song» recorded in worse sonic quality than an early Paramount recording of Blind Blake pissed on by a pack of wild dogs). But this isn't required. On most of the songs, he just tells these stories — getting soaked, meeting a chick, proceeding to the habitual, making some sarcastic or self-deprecating or others-deprecating comments about it, then play on repeat. 'Deeper' goes on for seven and a half minutes that way, and it's just a story about skinny-dipping with a 19-year old (not even underage, boo).
So what exactly is the artistic merit of Arab Strap's debut? Well, the themes and tricks are nothing new for 1996, but the combinations, as usual, are somewhat novel, Moffat's wasted Scottish accent by far not the least of them. If this is about depression and misery, after all, then Arab Strap are the first band to approach that theme from a perspective at once trashy and humble: there are no attempts here to make the whole experience grandiose or epic or prophetic, to stroke egos in a «look at us, we've figured out the rotten core of the world better than all those blind men around us» kind of way. But, repeating myself, I don't see the «depression», at least not in the music itself. I see an adequate transmission of how one feels after having drunk and fucked too much, with a vague realization, perhaps, that there may be other sides to this life but without any clear idea what they might really be. In that way, the album works for me — despite the fact that talking about it as «music» makes about as much sense as talking about Metal Machine Music as such.
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