Album: Monday at the Hug & Pint – Arab Strap
Review: Pitchfork – 8 May 2003
Author: Chris Ott
Only The Pogues invite more and lazier booze analogies than Arab Strap, so I won’t insult your intelligence by forestalling mine: if their career is the musical equivalent of an alcoholic life – and in all likelihood it is – Monday at the Hug & Pint is Arab Strap’s moment of clarity. It’s an album dominated by regret, frustrated reflection and a desire to move forward, the least bullshitting, most accomplished and first consistently great release from Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton.
Arab Strap enjoyed undue praise for their intrinsic gait, their hollow tunes profiting from the same sheepish Anglophilia that made Irvine Welsh and Belle & Sebastian household names in America, where they can barely tell Scots from Cockney. The signature browbeating and bleating dirges still abound, but there’s an increased focus on songwriting rather than the moping first-person exposition that typified their first few records. Monday at the Hug & Pint doesn’t sound shockingly different from the rest of their catalog, but it’s a crystallization of identity and intent; where they once sprawled – hungover and depressed – Arab Strap have built on last year’s promising, alternately post- and pub-rock The Red Thread, proving they’re capable of taking themselves dead seriously.
Listening to their insecure and uneven beginnings – and ignoring The Red Thread as a bridge – Monday is an auspicious improvement. Though it’s nominally awkward, Depeche Mode‘s unpredictably great last gasp “Dream On” is an instant comparison with “The Shy Retirer”, a string-backed electro-acoustic dance tune with a newly positive nostalgia for the weekend’s pints. Genius lyrics abound – “You know I’m always moanin’/ But you jumpstart my serotonin,” and the somewhat infamous existential metaphor “this cunted circus never ends”– but just as the Matt Johnson (approaching Bono) croon of “Meanwhile at the Bar a Drunkard Muses” forecasts another barely conscious record of surly, sad-sack balladry (and skirts covering Ryan Adams‘ “Come Pick Me Up”), “Fucking Little Bastards” smashes the accepted idea of Arab Strap to bits.
Sounding at first like the Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ rendition of “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, “Fucking Little Bastards” cuts quickly into an overloaded post-rock, post-shoegaze dirge, its cinematic angst underscoring not only that Aidan and Malcolm have been spending a lot of time with Mogwai, but also that violinists Stacey Sievwright and Jenny Reeve have doubled the import of Arab Strap’s maudlin work. The duo’s “fuck it” experimentalism remains intact, tacked on in a closing minute-plus of collapsing loops and telephoned vocals that could have gone on forever as far as I’m concerned.
Returning to the acoustic dance sound that’s earned the group its audience, “Flirt” fails to make the same impression as the record’s opener, mostly because the vocals never dig any hooks in, syncopating with a beat too slow to warrant such interplay. After another typically Strap ballad – “Who Named the Days”– my hopes faded. In the age of compact discs, it’s very difficult to give a record the feel of having two sides, let alone convince a listener there’s hope for something better around the bend. Sigur Rós recently managed it, and Arab Strap one-up them with the dividing “Loch Leven”, a tune that’s structurally typical of the band, but rises above the shirking, impatient post-rock folk of old in its more deliberate craft and inspired performance.
It’s done one better by “Act of War”, where the strings (and horns!) lift into a hitherto unimaginable aggression– “The fact is you’ve always been clumsy!”– possibly due to the involvement of Bright Eyes‘ Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis, who worked with Moffat and Middleton on much of the record (as did Mogwai’s Barry Burns).
“Serenade” introduces liberal studio layering, overloading reverb, organ and strings and invoking everyone from The Smiths (“Rubber Ring”) to Sparks (“I only go for girls I’ve got no chance with”). Pinpoint samples of bottle rockets whizzing around add space, inferring that the night’s gone on perhaps too long and spilled out onto the lawn. The album ends with a somewhat repetitive appendix (“Pica Luna”), missing the perfect parting shot, a rousing piano sing-along named after their first record.
Though it’s just forty-five minutes long, Arab Strap make Monday at the Hug & Pint feel like an eternity – just like everything else in their catalog. While that was an unbearable aspect of their less considered youth, these days Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton are taking pints slowly, thinking before they speak. The girls go for a sharp wit when it’s doled out in good measure and offset by sensitivity; with any luck, these two won’t be reaching for the Arab Strap this weekend.
Monday at The Hug & Pint is a very fine record, but I’ve not got it in my Top 3 of Arab Strap albums, having fallen for their ‘insecure and uneven beginnings’. I was intrigued by this review, not least as it was from an American and I never imagined that the music of Arab Strap would survive any sort of Atlantic Crossing as it is, in many ways, as parochial as you’ll ever find, with the colloquialisms and Scottish humour struggling to be understood or appreciated.
And while I fail to see any resemblance to Depeche Mode, Sparks or a deft b-side to a single by The Smiths, I really like how the reviewer makes allowances for the mid-album dip (one that I’m in full agreement with) and talks up the Loch Leven/Act of War one-two (although they are separated by Glue in the running order) as they are among the duo’s most unexpected moments up to that particular point in time, but with hindsight can be seen as pointing the way for much of Aidan Moffat’s solo career and indeed the other collaborations he would go on to enjoy.
The last of the above features a very rare lead vocal from Malcolm Middleton.
Oh, and while I’m here, the new Arab Strap album and gigs this coming year will go someway to making up for how crap 2020 turned out.