Songs from the Pub 

Arab Strap: Tortured Artists?

by Michael Alan Goldberg

Arab Strap Sun April 6

Crystal Ballroom

By now, Arab Strap's Malcolm Middleton is plenty used to being misunderstood. If it's not some Yank writer like myself struggling a bit with his Scottish brogue over the phone, it's the persistent characterization of the Falkirk duo as something out of a tragic Robert Burns poem.

"People usually assume we're either really tortured artists, which we're not, or drunken Scots alcoholics, which we're not, or that we're manic depressives with horribly bad relationships, which I'm not," he chuckles, placing the blame squarely on the broad shoulders of his bitter half, singer-lyricist Aidan Moffat.

Fair enough. It's Moffat's famously intimate, lager-and-spunk-soiled tales of love longed for, unrequited, nurtured, betrayed, shat upon, and lost, in all their painful and darkly comical candidness, that have made the reputation stick. But Middleton's no unwitting accomplice--as the musical half of the outfit, it's been his pensive arrangements, grounded by stark electronic beats, that have helped magnify Moffat's ultra-confessional prose into exceptionally unique, biting, and memorable vignettes.

Though the two have consistently taken their caustic vision to creatively lofty heights in their eight years together, Middleton insists they're just a couple of regular, generally cheery blokes committing their everyday experiences and feelings--usually the most uncomfortable and embarrassing ones--to tape.

"I wouldn't call us artists by any stretch of the word, not at all," he says. "I think we take what we do seriously, but we don't place so much seriousness on the actual work. We don't try to make the records emotional, we just try to be honest and not overly dramatic."

Whatever the approach, the Strap has an uncanny knack for getting under one's skin. The last taste they left in our mouths, 2001's The Red Thread, was a deliciously acrid one, certainly their gloomiest hour. But after a year-long hiatus, during which Middleton and Moffat pursued solo endeavors, the pair reconvened in the studio last fall to begin recording their latest offering, Monday at the Hug & Pint, with a different plan in mind.

"Going into it I knew it had to be lighter and more fun," Middleton explains. "I was trying to capture the feel of our first album."

There's a literal nod in that direction with "The Week Never Starts Round Here," which bears the same title as their 1997 debut. And in a way this album, dynamic and daring, is like a whole new start--as if Red Thread marked the nasty culmination of a long-deteriorating relationship and Monday represents the tentative first steps into a world of fresh possibilities.

Or, more likely, of fresh romantic disasters waiting at the corner pub. Moffat has lightened up a bit, but he'll always be a cynic at heart. "Easy come, easy gone/Kiss a girl then write a song/Enjoy her while you can/Because it won't last long," he sings in "The Week." So it's mainly up to Middleton to brighten the corners, and he does so in places with pulsing dance beats, sprightly guitar melodies, even bagpipes. But when the instrumentation is plaintive--with violins, cellos, and simple piano melodies floating in and out of the mix --the mood still leans more toward hopeful than bleak.

Still, is it enough to dispel the myth of Arab Strap, tortured artists? Probably not.

"Eh, we don't care," Middleton laughs. "We bring it on ourselves."

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