AN ALBUM THAT’S COME OF AGE

Philophobia, the second studio album by Arab Strap is now 21 years old.

It’s an impressively ambitious and sprawling record, coming in at 66 minutes, It has thirteen songs, all of which could pass as short stories or poems set to music. It’s never a comfortable listen but it always manages to hold your attention throughout. It’s a brutally candid record, with the protagonist in each song seemingly all too often putting his mouth in motion before properly engaging his brain. It does occasionally seem to sail very close to the wind in terms of misogyny but if the songs are given a concentrated listen, and the lyrics are read closely in the wider context, it won’t take long to come to the realisation that in spitting out such venom, our singer is lashing out as a way to excuse or explain his many physical and social inadequacies.

The lyrics throughout are incredible. Most reviews over the years have homed in on the opening five lines, and rightly so:-

It was the biggest cock you’d ever seen
But you’ve no idea where that cock has been
You said you were careful – you never were with me
I heard you did it four times
But johnnies come in packs of three

If there has ever been a more shocking and heart-wrenchingly opening five lines to any album, then please enlighten me. It’s a song that takes your breath away from the offset and has such a powerful lyric that you are understandably distracted from the wonderfully understated guitar work going on in the background before the final emotional punch in the guts over the final minute and as the melancholic cello kicks in.

mp3 : Arab Strap – Packs Of Three

My own favourite moments come a short time later. The scenario is a lover’s tiff at the end of a night out, probably after both sides have had too much to drink, and most certainly over something completely trivial but right now of such significance that the relationship seems doomed:-

mp3 : Arab Strap – Here We Go

I defy anyone to listen and deny that they’ve never been in a similar situation.  It was there and then that I made my mind up that Aidan Moffat was the greatest Scottish lyricist of my generation, a view I have never wavered from these past two decades.

Philophobia also made my mind up that Malcolm Middleton was the most talented Scottish musician and arranger of my generation. It takes a special sort of skill to come up with music to complement perfectly angst, pain and fear without it being maudlin, downbeat or depressing. The guitar parts are perfectly executed but there is also great use made of keyboards, drum machines, strings and the backing/co-vocals from Adele Bethel, especially on the song which paints a much more realistic post-sex picture than lighting up a cigarette and letting out a contended sigh.

mp3 : Arab Strap – Afterwards

I’ve read that some critics don’t like the one-dimensional pace of Philophobia, with the opinion that an upbeat number or two, along the lines of First Big Weekend of The Summer  would have livened things up for the better.

As you may have guessed by now, it’s not a view that I subscribe to. Arab Strap would in later years write and record some truly astonishing and memorable albums but nothing ever quite came together as majestically as Philophobia.

The sound of being insecure, nervous, scared, frustrated, flawed, bewildered, confused and far from OK has never been bettered.

mp3 : Arab Strap – I Would Have Liked Me A Lot Last Night

PS : The reason I didn’t illustrate the posting with original artwork is that the nudity would have been flagged up by one of social media links for Simply Thrilled and gotten us into trouble!

JC

SOME SONGS ARE GREAT SHORT STORIES (Chapter Twelve)

It is the second appearance by Arab Strap in this series. It won’t be the last.

Oh and there’s a reason why this had to be posted today. But you’ll need to come back tomorrow to find the reason why.

It must have been at least three years ago. I had a crush on this girl I didn’t know. I thought it was a good idea at the time but I was pissed. I tried to find her by sending an ad into ‘The List’. It was free ’cause they’d just started this brand new section. First I passed it on to my old friend Denise for her inspection. It said: “I saw you twice and both times you were wearing orange. And she told you I fancied you in the toilets at The Garage.” There was never a reply, perhaps it didn’t astound her. That’s assuming she ever saw it but I think I’ve found her. I thought it could’ve been her in a club on Saturday night. She was a couple of tables away and I thought it might be. But I was far too drunk, so an approach was out of the question. But this guy Stuart had sent us tickets to see his band Belle & Sebastian. We went along thoroughly drunk, stopped for a post-gig “Hello.” And I think the girl I was looking for is friends with the girl who plays the cello. I think she’s coming to see us when we play. And every time we meet I’ve got nothing to say. She probably thinks I’m cute, she maybe thinks I’m gay. She’s probably got a boyfriend anyway. I remember the first time that I saw her, I was completely in awe. I thought, well that’s the kind of girl that I would like to be my squaw. And if I could ever be the kind of brave that she would choose, we’d travel plains with our little baby turned in its little papoose. She sat beside me in a public bar, my bird was in the bog. When she returned she said that she would like to give that girl a snog. And two weeks later we split up and a new lover I was seeking. And when I see that girl again I’m just never up for speaking. I think she’s coming to see us when we play. And every time we meet I’ve got nothing to say. She probably thinks I’m cute, she maybe thinks I’m gay. She’s probably got a boyfriend anyway.

mp3 : Arab Strap – I Saw You (Peel Session)

This was regularly aired in early livs shows but it was never pit out on an album or single. It was, however, recorded for a Peel Session in March 1997 and finally made available to the public on the Ten Years Of Tears! compilation released in 2006.

JC

SOME SONGS ARE GREAT SHORT STORIES

This might develop into an occasional series or I might just do this one and move on.

Some songs, as the title of the posting indicates, are great short stories. Such lyrics are always crystal-clear and open to only one interpretation. This, which can be found on the debut LP by Arab Strap, is one of my all-time favourites of the genre:-

mp3 : Arab Strap – I Work In A Saloon

I work in a saloon, pulling shit pints for shit wages
It’s a busy night tonight
And the bar is full of all the girls I’ve ever shagged, or tampered with, or kissed, or even just fancied

A pub full of conquests, knockbacks
Between the laughter I can hear my name

And then, through the gap between the swing doors and the floor, I see your feet
You push open the doors and walk in
And as always all heads turn
And the room becomes silent, except for the sound of your DMs scuffing on the floor

You stroll through the jealous gaze straight to the bar, smile, and ask me for some exotic cocktail
But I don’t know how to make it
So you just shrug, smile again, turnaround and leave

And I pull another pint

Here’s a souped-up version, as played by the full band at their first ever gig at King Tut’s in Glasgow on 15 October 1996 and as captured by a BBC outside broadcast and made available as part of the Scenes Of A Sexual Nature box set:-

mp3 : Arab Strap – I Work In A Saloon (live)

Aidan Moffat. The 20th/21st century national bard of Scotland.

JC

ONLY ONE MORE SLEEP

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As much as I have loved the solo output from Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton, I have hugely missed Arab Strap.

This however, is the week they are playing a short tour of gigs in London, Manchester and Glasgow. My ticket is for tomorrow night for the Barrowlands, my favourite venue in the world. I’ll do my best to avoid looking at the setlists from the gigs in England so that I get the full element of surprise. But given how excited so many folk have been about this reunion then I’m sure it’ll be all over social media and near impossible to ignore.

In celebration of what will be a highlight of my year, I’m posting a single from back in 1998. It’s a different version of the song Soaps that appears on their peerless 1998 LP Philophobia. I’ve also pulled together the various b-sides from the 7″ and 12″ versions

mp3 : Arab Strap – (Afternoon) Soaps
mp3 : Arab Strap – Phone Me Tomorrow
mp3 : Arab Strap – Toy Fights
mp3 : Arab Strap – Forest Hills

I’ve also decided to post the video as it is unusual in a number of ways.

Firstly, it is the extremely rare sight of a clean-shaven Aidan. Secondly, Malcolm appears in the video for a short time – and from what I remember it’s the only time he ever does in any of the Arab Strap promos that were made.

I’ve a feeling the video inspired this great promo six years later:-

Enjoy.

PS

Just as I thought my weekend couldn’t get any better, I’m off tonight to an unusual gig in an unusual venue.

The Citizens Theatre in Glasgow is the venue.  This weekend sees the The Citz Sessions, a short series of specially-curated gigs hosted in what is a magnificent and intimate Victorian auditorium.  Guest curators have brought together some of their favourite artists to present an intimate, stripped-back, acoustic performance in the iconic surroundings of the theatre.

Tonight is an all-female line up from the worlds of jazz, classical and pop – the latter being represented by the new in the shape of Teen Canteen and the established via Frances McKee (Vaselines) and Clare Grogan.  Can’t really ask for much more can i?

BONUS POSTING : HAPPY TALK

smile

I went on Facebook last night and posted something. It’s not normally something that I do…I tend to use the place as a way of throwing out pithy one-liners in response to what others have said; indeed, I only joined up in the first place as it was the way to keep on top of certain announcements around events and ticket availability. But such was the magnitude of the happening that I felt I had to share my thoughts with my cybernet mates:-

They say good things tend to come in threes. Here’s some evidence….

I recently had the good fortune to catch incredible live performances, at small intimate venues, from two of my all-time favourites in the shape of Robert Forster and Belle & Sebastian.

Not too many things could top that. But the announcement that Aidan and Malcolm are reforming for three live shows this coming October does exactly that.

2016 started off real shit for music fans with far too many sad and untimely deaths. The summer has so far been an awful lot better…..

A wee bit of explanation.

Robert Forster is a total legend. But his visits to these parts are, naturally, few and far between and so the fact he was coming to Glasgow and playing, of all places, the wonderful space that is King Tut’s made it a ‘must see’. However, I was nagged by the fact that someone as talented and revered as him wasn’t playing a larger venue given the legacy of his time as a Go-Between and not forgetting last year’s Songs To Play was such a wonderful listen. I was concerned too that I’d go along and end up annoyed with folk who were only there for the old stuff and would show a lack of respect by talking their way through the material they either didn’t know or were less fond of. And in a venue with a 300 capacity, all it would take is a handful of such idiots to ruin the occasion.

My fears came to nothing as this was one of the best audiences I’ve ever had the privilege of being part of. Robert and his band got a rousing reception and the cheers for his solo material were every bit as loud as those for the songs by his old band. He was on stage for the best part of two hours, struggling a bit with his voice as he had a dreadful cold, but where many would have been tempted to use that as an excuse to hold back in a performance he seemed to use it to push himself that bit harder. He played around 20 songs with half coming from the Go-Betweens back catalogue…and he had such a talented group of musicians with him that it felt as if the clock really had been rolled back more than 30 years. It was bliss. I didn’t think I’d enjoy myself so much at a gig in 2016.

And then, just two weeks later I find myself at the Debating Chamber of Glasgow University Union (capacity 500 – 250 standing and same again seated upstairs). I’ve been in this space quite a few times but never for a gig….and by my reckoning it will be about the 75th different Glasgow venue that I’ve paid to see live music performed (must do a posting o that sometime). Belle & Sebastian are due on stage for what will be the first of three nights to celebrate their own 20th Anniversary and the 21st Birthday of the West End Festival, a highly popular event held every summer in the most bohemian quarter of my home city. I’m not sure what to expect as my expectations of the band have been gradually diminishing in recent years with recent albums leaving me disappointed and then there was a farce of a gig at the Hydro (capacity 13,000) in which they failed dismally in their efforts to put on a show in keeping with that size of venue. It was full of gimmicks, stage-managed to the point of ridiculous and just not in keeping with the band so many of us had fallen head over heels with.

Another show just under two hours long, with most of the material drawn from the very early albums and EPs , and almost all the songs being aired in the live setting for the first time since I didn’t have any X’s in front of the L in the label of my indie-kid t-shirts. And it was joyous and a celebration of everything that not only makes the band special but brings out the best in folk from my home city who know instinctively when they are seeing and hearing something special and react accordingly. There was no talking in between songs, no attempts to sing-a-long and drown out the band, and there was hand-clapping when the band sought a bit of accompaniment at the right times. I smiled at the opening note of the first song and I was still grinning as myself and Aldo made our way home in time for the last train thanks to the venue being in an area where there is an early curfew – this would normally be a bone of contention but not on a Monday night when there’s a long week at work ahead!

Two days later though, all of that gets topped.

Arab Strap were together for ten years from 1996. Since then, Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton have carved out successful and critically acclaimed solo careers which has played a part in how revered their original band had become since they walked off stage for the last time in December 2006. They jokingly (or so it seemed) said at the time said they might reform in another ten years.

The internet stirred last weekend when the band’s website suddenly carried the teasing message ‘HELLO AGAIN’ imposed on top of a very early promo photo. A countdown to Monday lunchtime led to a message to listen in to Steve Lamacq’s show on BBC Radio 6 on Wednesday afternoon. That was where it was confirmed they were getting together for three shows in October in London, Manchester and Glasgow. Furthermore, a download single was being available – a Miaoux Miaoux remix of The First Big Weekend – which would be released 20 years to the day when the actual weekend in question took place. Which just happens to be today.

I’ve purchased and downloaded the song and it is fucking amazing. A musical highlight not just of 2016 but of the 21st Century.

A year that was threatening to be the worst ever has suddenly, and very unexpectedly, taken a huge turn for the better.

mp3 : Robert Forster – Rock’n’Roll Friend
mp3 : Belle & Sebastian -If You’re Feeling Sinister
mp3 : Arab Strap – I Saw You

Sigh.

A LAZY STROLL DOWN MEMORY LANE : 45 45s AT 45 (17)

ORIGINALLY POSTED ON THURSDAY 1 MAY 2008

here we go

I’ve been lucky enough to live almost all of my life in a reasonable sized city – 40 years in Glasgow and 5 years in Edinburgh (updated now to 48 years in Glasgow!). Both are well-renowned in the visual and performing arts, with proud-roll calls of musicians, painters, novelists, entertainers and raconteurs. You wouldn’t expect anything different given both have more than 500,000 residents.

There is a town called Falkirk that is situated almost exactly halfway between Scotland’s two main cities. It is home to around 33,000 people which makes it the 20th largest settlement in Scotland (you would be surprised to find just how small in global terms our towns and cities are).

It is a fairly typical Central Scotland town in that it was formerly heavily dependant on heavy industry and engineering, much of which has disappeared in the last three or four decades. Nowadays, many of the local population take the commuter train west to Glasgow or east to Edinburgh for employment.

I think it’s not unfair to say that Falkirk is the sort of town where folk grow up and usually look to move elsewhere when they can.

And yet it is a place that has produced some incredibly talented folk over the past two decades in particular. A couple of my favourite authors Gordon Legge and Alan Bissett hail from the town – both fill their books with ordinary and recognisable characters who are often besotted with music, football, cars, drugs and alcohol. (Sadly, Gordon Legge last wrote a novel in 1998, but Alan Bissett is still going strong and his website is here)

(NB : Since 2008, I can add Adam Stafford as someone connected with Falkirk to the distinguished list.  He was born in Sunderland but moved to Falkirk at a very young age….)

One of my favourite bands (now sadly no more), consisting of Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton, hail from Falkirk. They were of course Arab Strap, a pair who filled their songs with recognisable characters who are often besotted with….well if the truth be told, sex and drugs.

The odds of a town such as Falkirk producing so many great artists in such a short timescale must be pretty high. There’s nothing about it that immediately grabs you as being inspirational – it’s a very ordinary, almost dull place. And yet each of these writers and musicians have taken their surroundings and produced narratives that grab your attention from the outset and keep hold of it until the last sentence on the last page or last note is struck on the single or album.

Arab Strap have often been accused of having been latent miserablists. Aidan Moffat as the principal songwriter has, by some folk, been labelled as misogynist. The evidence seems to be a lot of the songs are about failed relationships and that the protagonist often blames his other half for what happens rather than look at his own faults. He’s no misogynist, just a hopeless sad romantic….there’s no other explanation for song titles like The Girl I Loved Before I Fucked and Meanwhile, At The Bar, A Drunkard Muses. And have a listen to Where We Left Our Love if you still have doubts.

Aidan Moffat is probably the most unique songwriter to come out of Scotland in my lifetime. The characters in his songs are more often than not angst-ridden, lacking in self-belief, riddled with doubts and always in fear of failure. Almost all of his songs could be filmed as a short story. And when you dig a little bit below the surface, you will often find some fantastic examples of humour in his writing.

What makes the band so special however is that Malcolm Middleton was able to take these brilliant bits of narrative and set them to music that was equally as ground-breaking and imaginative.

(And before anyone pulls me up about how I’ve suggested the labour in the band was divided, I’m well aware that sometimes Aidan wrote music as well, and that Malcolm did contribute some lyrics.)

It’s true that Arab Strap are a bit of an acquired taste. But I think they were fantastic over the ten years they were together, and their break-up was a sad day for Scottish music. But at least we have the consolation of them both performing as solo artists now.

This single was released on the Glasgow-based label Chemikal Underground in 1998. It can also be found on the truly astonishing and jaw-dropping LP Philophobia, whose cover features drawings of a nude Aidan Moffat and his then girlfriend.

mp3 : Arab Strap – Here We Go
mp3 : Arab Strap – Trippy

Warning :  Trippy is more than 12 minutes in length.  It’s a short story about drug-taking that has got all sorts of sounds set to it.  It’s quite unique.

Here’s the lyric:-

Ailidh phoned me at work at about half four. It’s funny I don’t even speak to her any more, she’s a fucking wee cow. Better than everybody, ken? Doesn’t speak to her mates or anything like that. Anyway, we got in at the time and she phones me up and asked me what I’m doing tonight. I was only going to sit in and watch the telly as usual, wondering where everybody else was. So she said, come round to Rab’s house and that, get some trips, ken? So I said I’d go round about six. I was about an hour late and I was knocking on the door and that, and nobody answered. And I thought, oh fucking brilliant they’re away out without me and that, they’ll be away up the town having a laugh. So I walk back round the road, ’cause I thought they were away out, and I phoned. Turns out they had still been there. They were that out of it, they couldn’t even get to the door.

So I went back round. Everybody was fleeing as usual and I got handed my half. And I thought I’d just take it, ken? I’m working the next day, I better not go too far. But two hours later, nothing was happening. so I thought , fuck it. And I took the rest, which I’d been warned about already. Everyone was jumping about the front room as usual, and we were sitting giggling, having a laugh and then Cheg came and took us to the pub in his car. We told Cheg he should be our anchor, that was a fucking laugh. He kept telling us to calm down, as though he was our mum and dad and that, ’cause we were acting like weans and giggling and looking at the table and dropping our drinks all over the place.

We made it back to his car, jumped in, and he took us back round to the house. Then he decided to pack it in and go home. So Malcolm and I get back in the house and suddenly someone’s going on about Rab and how he’s he’s no fucking there , and how he’s away outside and he looks like he’s in pain or something like that. He had to go and pick up some more stuff ’cause they’d used all this stuff for Glastonbury the next week. And somebody said he apparently took something when he was there, so he’s writhing about in pain outside. So Malcolm and I walked out and he’s was walking along the edge of road on the grass and that with his fucking stomach held in his hands and he’s screaming and that. And then we lost him. He disappeared into the park and we didn’t know where he was. So Malc and I were walking about and then we found him. But we decided we should stay back a bit, ken? In case he got a fright. So we followed him up into this park, as though that wasn’t going to scare him anyway!! And when we did find him, he was there doubled up in pain, fucking screaming his eyes out, going on about how his stomach was knotted and he shouldn’t have taken it, and it was a stupid thing to do. So he’s sitting there on the hill and that with Malc and I on either side and all we can do is sit and giggle and look at the grass and take the piss out of him.

So we get him up on his feet and we start walking him about and he says he’s alright. And we walk up to the garage and he’s going on about his stomach. Then he starts shouting about how we should get away from him and that, in case something happens, in case he fucking dies or something. So he says he thought it was that bad, that’s what was going to happen and he didn’t want us to be involved. He always looked out for everyone else, ken? So we take him to the garage and he wants a bottle of Irn Bru and he’s fuckin’ downing this bottle of Irn Bru, talking about his fucking stomach and everything and how he’s taken this thing and he has to get it out of his system and talking about how it’s all in his bile, and he’s desperately trying to make himself sick and he’s screaming all the fucking time as well. And Malc and I are still laughing – we don’t know what he’s up to. He could have taken anything, I wouldn’t know.

Nobody’s sure yet about what he took. Fuckin’, he could have injected something, he could have swallowed something, nobody knows. But he just stood there with this dirty fucking face, it’s all black and dirty and brown, ken? He’s halfway down his bottle of Irn Bru and he’s being sick all over the fucking place. And a car went by, slowing down the road but he’s just screaming all the time about how it was all in his fucking bile and how he wants to be sick. He keeps fucking screaming… then he threw up.

(LONG INSTRUMENTAL BREAK!!!!)

So we walked him back to the house after made us swear we wouldn’t tell anybody. So he goes back to the house and he fucking tells everybody. He locked himself in his room and started eating a bag of sugar or something like that, while everyone else was talking about what a dick he was. I ended up at the park that night. Sitting eating Pringles with Paula and watching the wildlife. And the next day when I went to work I was still out of my face. I was pacing about on the stairs talking to myself and writing things and he walked in and stressed the point about making sure that no one would find out.

Enjoy.

SATURDAY’S SCOTTISH SONG : #13 : ARAB STRAP

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I said more than enough yesterday.

mp3 : Arab Strap – Gilded (live at King Tut’s, Glasgow on 16 October 1996)

Wish I’d been there.

Originally recorded for the b-side of the debut single.  As you’ll hear from the introduction, this was the very first gig the band played but already there were folk who knew all the words!!

The boys have since admitted they were far from sober when they took to the stage.  But at least their nerves had been steadied…