ARAB STRAP: THE RED THREAD (2001)
1) Amor Veneris; 2) Last Orders; 3) Scenery; 4) The Devil-Tips; 5) The Long Sea; 6) Love Detective; 7) Infrared; 8) Screaming In The Trees; 9) Haunt Me; 10) Turbulence.
It is always inspiring to find a juicy bit of somebody else's phrasing to pick and tear at the start of a critical review, and damn corporate ethics to hell. So this time I will unscrupulously pick on an old fellow reviewer, who once praised The Red Thread as follows: «...only those with working hearts will appreciate or understand this awesome mix of emotion, disenchantment, and melody».
Despite all the respect that said reviewer usually commands on my part, my guess here is that, perhaps, a working heart is a necessary but not sufficient condition to appreciate or understand this... whatever he said, anyway. At least, certainly not sufficient if you view The Red Thread in context rather than on its own. On its own, Arab Strap's usual unusualness may paralyze you the way it must have paralyzed latecomers in 2001; in context, it's just more of the same old same old from Scotland's famous propagators of the dazed and confused.
Except it's even worse than the already overrated Elephant Shoe. If you do not approach it as purely background muzak — and why should you? if you want background muzak, just throw on some Tangerine Dream — it is simply excruciatingly long. Each song, on the average, occupies around five or six minutes of sonic space so as to implant exactly one (1) musical idea (usually, not a very awesome one) in your brain.
'Screaming In The Trees', for instance, opens with a moderately complex guitar phrase à la Lou Reed that must have taken approximately as much time to write as it took to strum it out for the first time. That is, about seven seconds. After that, nothing else happens except for a few murky «lost-in-the-woods» keyboard whooshes and hushes... for six minutes. Hypnotic? Mesmerizing? Spellbinding? My goodness, and to think that in my innocent teenage days I used to think of 'The End' as «boring». Jim Morrison's ramblings, next to this exercise in bland minimalism, have all the strength of a titanic Wagner finale.
Perhaps if each and every song on here were cut in half (and the really long ones cropped by one third), I would be more sympathetic. Middleton's musical creativity is never stunning, but it is rarely altogether worthless. 'Turbulence', for the first couple of minutes, is convincingly moody — an odd splicing of a near-techno rhythm with dark, misanthropic bass and a quirky use of scratch instead of a real guitar melody. Any working heart could appreciate that. But for eight minutes? With nothing but another batch of speeding ghost keyboard overdubs for extra entertainment? Do they really think that only that sort of length makes the whole thing artistic? Is it supposed to help those who long to prolong a special sort of trance? If it is supposed to be trance-inducing, why do they bother to come up with lyrics in the first place?..
Speaking of lyrics, as usual, Moffat comes up with another ingenious bunch of drink-fueled imagery, but, just like the music, the words, too, are getting old. The poet cuts down a bit on crudeness and sheer shock value, which is laudable, but this does not mean that the Holy Duality of Booze and Sex is in danger of being replaced by any other central themes. 'Love Detective' is the one people quote the most, only because it sort of tells an almost explicit story about rummaging through your loved one's diaries and learning about her secret affairs. But, uh, so what? The song itself is as mind-numbing as everything else on here.
In short, The Red Thread is simply the epitome of everything that can go wrong with a mood-oriented album even when it's run by a couple of not-untalented musicians. As much as I am disgusted by Arab Strap's general philosophy, I concede that it can be done skilfully, and has been done by them skilfully both before and after this record. This, however, I cannot even accept as background music; with each and every good idea on the record degenerating into crap less than midway through, it's easily the firmest thumbs down I could ever show these guys.
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