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Arab Strap - Monday at the Hug & Pint

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Artist: Arab Strap

Album: Monday at the Hug & Pint

Label: Matador

Review date: Apr. 22, 2003

Bring out the Bagpipes

I have never been to Falkirk, Scotland, hometown of Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton, the duo who comprise Arab Strap, but I have made it to Glasgow, where the two now reside. The memory that stands out most from my brief trip there was an excursion my friend Dave and I made to the city’s Necropolis, an isolated hillside that houses Glasgow’s most prominent cemetery. Appropriately, it was an overcast day with intermittent rain; the Necropolis had been built in a classical style that was meant to emulate Père Lachaise in Paris, only on a hillside, in order to prevent the flooding of graves that was a result of Scotland’s perpetually soggy climate. Walking around the Necropolis Dave and I met an elderly, drunk man. He decided to give us an impromptu tour of the Necropolis and we ended up at the grave of a Scotsman by the name of Miller, the deceased author of a children’s ballad. Neither of us had ever heard this song before, but somehow it seemed natural that our drunken guide has chosen this landmark as his own personal highlight – two random American tourists pissing away time in a foreign city, we could not have been happier.

Regionalism is both important and misleading. It is important because we live in an increasingly globalized world where distinct regional accents and identities are becoming rare things. The proliferation of television coupled with transient lifestyles has left no area of the world truly isolated. If we are talking about the English-speaking world, even the most desolate hamlet in the north of Scotland probably has access to Sky Television and the five reruns of Friends that appear every evening. As a result, in the United Kingdom (and in the United States and Ireland for that matter), we are all speaking a more homogenous version of our nation’s speech. Through similar influences we are all becoming more exposed to supposedly idiosyncratic cultures.

Nevertheless, an appreciation of regionalism can be misleading because it relies on stereotypes in the vain pursuit for a sense of authenticity. I remember when I was living in Dublin, the jeering laughs my Irish roommates had for so-called “traditional” music. They had absolutely no interest in hearing a fiddler play jigs and reel while well-postured girls tapped around. Their sights and attitudes were directed to London and the (in my opinion horrendous) garage/jungle music that was being produced there. To them, traditional Irish music was a vestige of the nation’s rural, impoverished past. They sought to shed any regional or national identity, and forge ahead into the urbane future.

I delve into these points because I think they are relevant to Arab Strap. On Monday at the Hug & Pint, the band’s fifth studio album, Arab Strap successfully juxtaposes songs that deal with the fallacy of human interaction, while maintaining a singular Scottish sound and mindset. Moffat’s gurgled lyrics and slurred delivery should be cherished and exalted for its uniqueness, even if it lacks “prettiness.” On the Scottish-supergroup the Reindeer Section’s most recent album, Son of an Evil Reindeer, Moffat’s voice is distinct even among his fellow countrymen. If Belle and Sebastian are the delight of university-educated intellectuals, Arab Strap seems more comfortable vying for the title of last two kicked out of the pub. Scots are famous for their industry, and Arab Strap have worked harder then any band to document the intricacies of that filthy, despicable thing known as life. Whereas many bands are content to provide the background for dreams and alternate worlds, Arab Strap is determined to force its listeners to dwell in a grounded reality that defies escape and progress because the same disappointments happen over and over again. Somehow, this inwardly fatalistic view, with its hints of a preordained path through life, comes across as being quintessentially Scottish.

Monday at the Hug & Pint opens in an upbeat, deceptive fashion. On “The Shy Retirer,” a driving drumbeat by Middleton masks that Moffat is mumbling on about masturbation. Lyrically Arab Strap has stuck to a manner that can be described as half-genius, half-ridiculous – Monday at the Hug & Pint is no exception. Lines such as “you know I’m always mourning/but you jumpstart my seratonin” are littered throughout the album and Moffat can seemingly go from bitter morbidity to aloof homilies in a flash.

Songs such as “Flirt” and the pensive “Who Named the Days?” highlight Arab Strap’s talent for weaving narratives. “Flirt” plays with perspective and how we measure the company we are in. Set to a somewhat ominous drum beat and the occasional hint of a piano, “Flirt” finds Moffat describing to a girl he is apparently trying to seduce, what happened to her former lover. “I see him now and then but now he just looks bored/ he used to flirt with everyone, but now prefers to be alone.” “Who Named the Days?” with its slow but forceful pace, would not be out of place on a Low album. The track finds Moffat speaking in the third person, berating the misogynistic facet of his character with the accusatory phrase, “He makes me treat girls like shit/ he makes me lie to them and use them.” It is a hopelessly depressing yet utterly moving account of the divide between how we want to perceive ourselves and the reality of who we are. “The Week Never Starts Round Here” (the Mendoza Line pulled of a similar trick by naming a track on their new album after the title of an old album – there is something to be said for obsession towards a theme) buries the listener in a classic Arab Strap mood, misery that for all purposes seems to be permanent. Oddly, the song’s verses have a musical structure and rhythm reminiscent of Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son.”

My favorite part of Monday at the Hug & Pint are the adjoined tracks, “Loch Leven intro” and “Loch Leven,” where the blue and white flag wave prominently. On “Loch Leven intro,” a harmony of bagpipes is scratched and made to skip, as if a Tartan Day Parade was stuck in place and repeating itself. A violin and the sound of rain accompany this bizarre sequence. The overall effect is quite beautiful and leads seamlessly into “Loch Leven” proper, which addresses the quotidian happenings of a day at the loch, such as the way the sun is shining and a conversation between a boy and a girl, not unlike a Scottish Winesburg, Ohio.

When I asked my Irish roommates if they were fans of the Pogues, all responded enthusiastically yes. They had no problem with this manifestation of traditional music, even if it was built upon both the musical and thematic foundation that earlier Irish performers has already constructed. Perhaps it was their way of lauding the Pogues’ innovations and desire to be relevant in a contemporary context – some of the stereotypes of what it meant to be Irish might have persisted with the Pogues, but they were conveyed in a way that made the fellow bearers of those stereotypes proud. With this in mind, Arab Strap should be applauded as well. While I can hear many bands grapple with love, sex, and all that is flawed with interpersonal relationships, it is not often that I am afforded the opportunity to hear these lamentations in a thick Scottish accent, sounding if they are coming from the dark, murky corner of a pub.

By Andy Urban

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