ARAB STRAP: MAD FOR SADNESS (1999)
1) Intro/My Favourite Muse; 2) Packs Of Three; 3) New Birds; 4) Toy Fights; 5) Here We Go; 6) Phone Me Tomorrow; 7) Girls Of Summer; 8) Piglet; 9) Blood; 10) Afterwards.
«Arab Strap Live» is somewhat of an oxymoron; having made a point of always sounding dead in the studio, it is a priori unclear what sort of nice change a transfer to the live setting could make. Nor does it seem like a good sign when you look upon the track listing — with six songs out of ten reprising freshly released material from Philophobia with more or less the same time length for each of the numbers (the actual show was recorded September 21st, 1998, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London).
Confusingly, Mad For Sadness is Arab Strap's best album from the «formative» period. Which is not to say it is generally accessible or shows you any of the band's sides you are not already familiar with. But if a magician were given a copy of Philophobia and told, «Do whatever is in your power to improve upon the convincing force and coolness factor of this stuff without making it sound like somebody else», Mad For Sadness would be the eventual result, no doubt.
First, their live sound is recorded better than its studio equivalent. Maybe it's the added bonus of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, but somehow the instruments start reclaiming territory that, in the studio, used to be dominated exclusively by Moffat's incessant grumbling. From the very start, check out Middleton's guitar work on 'My Favourite Muse'. The instrument plays, resonates, rings, echoes, generates mood and tension, whereas in the studio all that really got through was the goddamn bass. Sure, it's not a Jimmy Page-type landscape or even The Edge-style we're talking here, but not before taking a good sniff of this record would you believe that these guys have any sort of use for the guitar other than providing monotonous old tradition-grounded accompaniment.
Second, out of no other feeling, I believe, than pity for the audiences they vary the volume levels a bit. 'New Birds', as it turns out, had a jarring grunge-like section on the original release as well, but I didn't even remember this when the transition hit me rock-hard on Sadness — because they did hit it harder, and, again, where the original was mostly just deafening bass and power chords, here there is an extra psychedelic guitar melody played in the background (not sure how they manage two guitars, but a fellow named Gary Miller is credited as responsible for bass and David Gow for drums). All of a sudden... they rock! Oddly attractive.
This sudden embracing of dynamics reaches its peak with the eight-minute reworking of an old EP-only track, 'Girls Of Summer', which starts out as a morose stoner jam, but then suddenly gets transformed into a Cure-style dance-of-death thing, going from ringing echoey loops to grunge and back, then eventually picking up speed and metamorphosing into an almost techno style — and Moffat's «singing» lasts only for the first two minutes.
In addition, the setlist is about as strong as it could ever be (concentrating on stuff like 'Here We Go', whose lonely piano drip-drip-drips at the end are a classic Arab Strap-style hook), Adele Bethel reprises her guest vocal spot on 'Afterwards', and the live drumming is a real heart-warmer after the intellectually annoying drum machines of the studio recordings (although even during the live show they occasionally turn on the tapes). All of this adds up to the first unequivocal thumbs up in this band's history — not a big big deal, but if they really have transcended generic indie values in this setting, and I think they have, a bigger one than most of us would think.
Check "Mad For Sadness" (CD) on Amazon