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So, on a grim night befouled by woolen fog, you’re negotiating the twisting road from Glasgow to Oban. You swerve to avoid what appears, to your admittedly unzoological eye, to be a puffin. And in so doing, you smack your noggin against the steering wheel of your weeand when it comes right down to it, worthless-as-shiterental car. You come to, after who knows how many hours, in a dreary little pub called something like the Slaughtered Stoat with a trio of besotted locals grinning at you from the bar while some depressed mess of a Scot hangs drunkenly over a microphone, mumbling disconsolately about how his girl went and shagged all his friends, atop what is indisputably the cheesiest disco beat in all Christendom.
With his boozy, woozy vocals, this fellow sounds as if he’s but one small beer behind Shane MacGowan in the Queen’s Own Inebriation Sweepstakes. Later, you’ll find out that he’s actually getting paid to be there. Later still, you’ll find out that his name is Aidan Moffat, and that his band is called Arab Strap. Back at the B&B, you discover that Moffat and fellow Arab Strapper Malcolm Middleton have been making a muck of all things romantic since 1996, when they released their bedraggled (but aptly titled) debut long-player, The Week Never Starts Round Here. Said release included such patently inspirational sentiments as “Fuck love forever” and “He can keep that fickle disco tart” and introduced Moffat’s general philosophy of life, which can be summed something like this: Fuck love forever, he can keep that fickle disco tart.
Morrissey proved once and for all there will always be a market for misery, especially when the miserabilist in question shows at least a flicker of recognition that his state of mind is at least partially self-willed, and, therefore, hilarious. Of course, it helps immensely when the music’s as good as the dark tales, and cheesy disco beats or not, Moffat and Middleton have always had a knack for crafting simple and lovely folklike melodies augmented with real strings, the occasional crunchy guitar, and even a bagpipe or two. But if they’ve become slightly more listener-friendly over the years, they’ve never resorted to anything even remotely approaching easy listening. Indeed, about the only difference your hypothetical person in a coma since 1996 would notice between Arab Strap then and Arab Strap now is that the latter’s recordings contain fewer songs consisting solely of Moffat’s mutter, Middleton’s acoustic guitar, and a Dr. Rhythm that somebody left out in the rain back in 1987 and never bothered to get fixed.
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Monday at the Hug & Pint, the group’s fifth studio LP, is one long strangled howl of frustrated libidoin other words, exactly what you’d expect from a pair so sex-obsessed they named their band after a sex aid, yet so lacking in sexual confidence they named their band after a sex aid. From the delicate “Serenade”in which Moffat’s narrator tells the girl of his dreams, “the first time I saw you/I saw all my future/Right between your hips” before conceding “I only go for girls I got no chance with”to the thumping “Fucking Little Bastards,” it evokes a very special circle of hell: one whose residents spend all their time ruing their inability to score.
Then again, we have such places right here on Earth. They’re called clubs. So it’s perfectly appropriate that Monday should openwhere else?on the lonely end of the dance floor, to the beat ofwhat else?a drum machine. “The Shy Retirer” finds Moffat at “another blue-haired disco,” muttering beneath his breath about how “this cunted circus never ends” while making eyes at every “teenage Jenny” who passes him by. Yeah, the song probably is the most misogynist thing ever penned by a musician who doesn’t wear chains, but it’s hard to hate a man who can put together a couplet as self-aware as this one: “You know I’m always moanin’/But you jump-start my serotonin.”
Ah, but you can’t spend your whole life in the disco, and Moffat and Middletonwho once wrote a song called “The Smell of Outdoor Cooking”aren’t above the occasional foray into the natural world, as celebrated by the Lake Poets and such. Or so I’m concluding from “Loch Leven,” which certainly sounds natural enough, although for all I know is probably the name of a bar in Aberdeen. In any event, the track comes at you like a Scottish “Mr. Bojangles,” its strings and real live drummer giving it a folksier feel than your average Arab Strap tune. Not as folksy a feel, however, as the heavily arranged “Act of War,” on which the character played by Moffat admits to needing “an open-minded whore…/Someone to stand between me and the floor.” Things, of course, go badly: “Why does she always have bruises?/They’d be much happier apart,” sings Moffat as the track builds to the dizziest horn- and string-led crescendo this side of the Pogues.
But Arab Strap fans, quite rightly, don’t want the Pogues. They want morose whining, which is what they get on “Peep Peep,” a slow dance-type number gussied up with lots of atmospherics of the electronica persuasion. I’m not sure exactly what Moffat’s going on about on this one, but seeing as how the first words out of his mouth are “Once again I’ve gone a bit too far,” I’m pretty sure this story doesn’t have a happy ending either. The tempo is similarly measured on “Who Named the Days?,” which melds acoustic guitar, piano, cello, and sundry violins into a beautiful, bittersweet dirge that you’ll want to keep handy for the death anniversaries of loved ones.
“The Week Never Starts Round Here,” by contrast, is a relatively sunny little ditty heavy on the piano, proof that even adamantine pessimists stumble into the happy patch now and again. “Easy come, easy go/Simple as this stupid song,” sings Moffat, obviously hating himself for this unforgivable lapse into cheerfulness. Monday’s shocker, however, is “Fucking Little Bastards.” Overladen with feedback and driven forward by some serious drum pummel, this slog across the bottom of a stormy sea has less to do with Scotlandthough it does owe something to the percussion-happy lads in Mogwaithan it does with Manchester, where the ghost of Ian Curtis is undoubtedly smiling.
Violins howl, the drummer falls in love with his cymbals, and Moffat lets us know how he really feels about nature: “I don’t like the words that the birds are singing/I hate their ugly voices and the messages they’re bringing…/They whisper I’m a cunt and they cackle and they mutter.” Then, just when you think everything’s come to a screeching halt, a far-away-sounding Moffat begins singing as if he’d somehow gotten his suddenly tinyand hopefulself stuck inside a portable radio: “New blood flows/Old faces go…/I think I like these girls…/Now I want to party all the time.” As six-minute transformations go, you couldn’t ask for more affecting.
It’s a truism that people like to listen to other people’s problems precisely because they’re other people’s problems, but I can’t think of another world-hating, naysaying loser I’d rather spend time with than Aidan Moffat. After all, misery loves company, and anyone miserable enough to give the world something like Monday at the Hug & Pint needs my company almost as much as I need his. CP
Arab Strap performs at 9:15 p.m. Sunday, April 27, at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. For more information, call (202) 393-0930.