In 1996, an unlikely pair from Falkirk released an album of songs about life, the absence of love and scraping by.
What stood out at the time was not only the inventiveness, the often sparse musical palette layered carefully to create an emotive backing for Aidan Moffet’s dark, rumbling vocals, but the lyrics themselves. Taking a page from the Modernists’ books, Aidan took the ordinary and made it extraordinary, whether exposing his ennui by describing the ins and outs of a weekend on the piss, or describing his feelings of inadequacy whilst watching his ex across a smoky pub. The delicacy of much of Malcolm’s compositions helped to lift the darkness of the subject matter, and often songs shared a wry smile with the listener. And something very special was born.
Twenty years later, after leaving Arab Strap behind for other projects – Malcolm has his solo career, Aidan a finger in various pies – the boys return to their early work and perform a series of (often sold out) shows across the country as Arab Strap once more. The Glasgow show at the Barrowlands sold out in about 40 minutes, prompting them to announce a second night. Such is the love for this band.
The gigs are accompanied by a new record, though nothing new has been recorded. This is a compilation of twenty songs (for twenty years) and is a mixture of favourites and rarities. On Record One there are ten standout Strap tracks, starting with the track that is, in some ways, always associated with the band, The First Big Weekend, and going through each album, selecting the best of their output. Tracks include The Clearing, (Afternoon) Soaps and Here We Go. As we move through the years, tracks become more beautifully constructed, often delicately crafted, production and polish improving, but losing none of the heartbreak and tight observation. This is a fitting tribute to this important band.
Record Two continues to reveal Arab Strap’s ability to pick away at human interaction and misunderstandings. The tracks are all either b-sides or rarities. Standout tracks include We Know Where You Live, a dark portrait of violent boredom; Where We’ve Left Our Love, a tragic romance of lost love which originally appeared on the Japanese version of The Last Romance LP; Daughters of Darkness, a brutal night out, pissed and pissed off; and Blackness (the place, not the tone) with its plodding, building threat.
Listening to this compilation reaffirms the place Arab Strap hold in the history books. What strikes me as I listen is the remaining relevance of each track: no matter if they were recorded twenty years ago, the loss, love and laughs Aidan speaks of have never changed. Life may have changed for all involved in Arab Strap – a wealth of musicians have contributed over the years – but some things never will.