ARAB STRAP: MONDAY AT THE HUG & PINT (2003)
1) The Shy Retirer; 2) Meanwhile, At The Bar, A Drunkard Muses; 3) Fucking Little Bastards; 4) Peep-Peep; 5) Flirt; 6) Who Named The Days; 7) Loch Leven Intro; 8) Loch Leven; 9) Glue; 10) Act Of War; 11) Serenade; 12) The Week Never Starts Around Here; 13) Pica Luna.
If there is one album from Arab Strap that I could see myself willingly returning to in the future, it is Mad For Sadness. If there is one album from Arab Strap that I could see myself unwillingly returning to in the future — for instance, being held at gunpoint by one of the band's homicidal fans — it will be Monday At The Hug & Pint. Not because I could ever see it as a potential masterpiece; it just sort of sets the wheels in motion where most of their other records clog them into eternal peace.
A couple years off and a couple side solo projects later, as the static duo comes back together, there is a slight change in style and attitude that makes the next batch of results easier to bear and a bit more captivating. Nothing revolutionary, of course, but it is a bit ironic that the album title, so perfectly suitable to describe all of their early years, feels a bit obsolete when it is wrapping up their new material. Because there is a very vague sense of growing up here, of moving beyond the primitive barstool philosophy and the monotonous musical exploration of one single emotional state. Not «diversity» as such, you understand, but a bit of branching out.
Almost everybody's favourite from the record is 'The Shy Retirer', and I agree: it is as perfect an opener for an Arab Strap record as could ever be hoped for, setting a light, modestly active, and very musical tone for the entire record. The pseudo-techno dance rhythm is not the main point (in the past, Arab Strap had many times proved that they could be dead boring at any chosen tempo); the main point is the handsome chamber pop arrangement, with guitar and strings locked onto each other in an almost soaring (for Arab Strap's standards, that is) embrace — and it does not hurt that the lyrics, for once, drop all the shock value and simply concentrate on the feelings — and there is, what, optimism in the air?
No, it is not as if Moffat and Middleton, all of a sudden, decided to let go of the darkness: it rears its wings already on the third track, blatantly called 'Fucking Little Bastards' and jarring the environment with distortion, feedback, and fragile violins lost in a white noise tsunami. But there is more balance between dark and light here than ever before, and that may indicate that they are finally on their way to renounce caveman teenage excess in favour of something more reasonable... for instance, a tacit recognition of the fact that life as such is not reducible to side effects of one's ingrained booze and sex program?
It is for these little rays of light that some hardcore fans anathemized the album and ran back to their old scratched copies of The Red Thread. In the process, they missed the obvious (to me, at least) fact that Moffat and Middleton have become more interested in writing music. 'Flirt', for instance, whose main acoustic riff + spooky slide overtones is a terrific combination. The gorgeous violin solo on 'Who Named The Days'. A sudden decision to embrace their Scottish legacy with the bagpipe intro to 'Loch Leven'. The oddly Dylan-esque flavour of 'The Week Never Starts Around Here'. There is plenty to enjoy on here in a sober mood — unfortunately, most people had already acquired a Pavlov reflex that associates the first note on an Arab Strap album with the uncorking of a bottle of brandy. Not that it's anybody's fault but Arab Strap's own, of course.
And not that Monday At The Hug & Pint is all that great an album, either: the second half in particular revolves almost entirely around slow-tempo tunes heavily dominated by pretty, but very similar violin patterns. 'Who Named The Days' seems particularly inspired to me, but the rest gets fairly lost against its superiority and, once again, eventually settles into background muzak. Still, it has its share of surprises, which is particularly surprising for such a totally surpriseless band as Arab Strap used to be; and the lyrics, for once, are well worth studying ("sex without love is a good ride worth trying, but love without sex is second only to dying" should probably make it into history books). Thumbs up. Honest.
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