It’s been 10 years since Arab Strap called it quits, and it’s probably safe to say that, at least on this side of the pond, there hasn’t been an increased interest in the Scottish band’s catalog. That’s a shame, as over the band’s decade-long existence, they created a body of work that encapsulated the human condition in all its extreme and mundane forms. Against a backdrop part indie melancholy and part technotronic pop, singer Aidan Moffat exposed the sordid details of not only late-night intimacies, but also the dark recesses of his heart.
For myself personally, there probably hasn’t been a week that’s gone by since Moffat and guitarist Malcolm Middleton parted ways that I haven’t listened to one of their records. So when I learned that they were doing three UK reunion shows in October, it didn’t take much contemplation before I had bought tickets and booked a flight to Glasgow. (And believe me, it was well worth the expense.)
To mark the occasion of this reunion, Arab Strap got together with its longtime label Chemikal Underground to release a self-titled compilation. Comprised of 20 songs spread over two albums, the compendium is, as Moffat has explained, divided into two sets. The first 10 songs are essentially the band’s greatest hits, while the latter half are B-sides and outtakes that represent the band’s moodier moments. As such, there is nary a rock in the Arab Strap oeuvre left unturned as this record makes a noble attempt at presenting the full scope of the band (as if such a thing were possible).
As one should expect, the album leads off with “First Big Weekend,” the track that first got the band noticed 20 years ago. The song centers on Moffat’s detailing of a weekend spent drinking, watching football (a.k.a. soccer) and The Simpsons, and trying to pick up girls. This spoken monologue is juxtaposed with a drum machine beat that’s almost danceable, the result being an odd feelgood summer hit. The song was somewhat atypical for the band, though, who frequently took a more melancholy approach. The subsequent track, “Love Detective,” is more exemplary of the Arab Strap aesthetic as it ventures into a dimly lit groove while Moffat recounts his discovery of his paramour’s sex diary. The track is full of raw emotion without being particularly vitriolic. It is, in a word, brilliant.
As most every song is. “Cherubs” (from the band’s third album, Elephant Shoe) features a sparkling backing that melts around Moffat’s mumbled aphorisms, and “Rocket, Take Your Turn,” a single from 2000, takes a sadistic bent as it mounts in vitriol and the confluence of guitars and strings surges over a mechanized beat. Even when Moffat’s tone softens, as on “Don’t Ask Me to Dance,” there is still a hint in lines like, “You’re no angel from above, you’re the last girl I will love,’ of something darker, be it regret, disdain, or sadness.
There is little drop in quality when one gets to the B-sides. “I Still Miss You” divines a darkened funk via a piano loop played on the far-end minor keys. Here, Moffat is at his most direct as he slurs out indictments like “Are you in it cause he’s got his own smart place? Or are you just in it for the cock?” In lesser hands, such questioning might seem comedic, but here it conveys the swirl of anger and hurt that no doubt fueled the inquiry. As this survey of the band’s catalog shows, there are no taboos in the Arab Strap vernacular, and it is that blunt honesty that made the band stand out like a single light in the darkness.