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Arab Strap

Perhaps no one making pop music these days is as bluntly honest and unafraid of being depressing as Scotland's Arab Strap. Since 1995 the band has been spinning its spiteful little tales about the luckless in love, the domestically disappointed, the jilted, the betrayed -- in short, all those who have endured the absolute hell of romance. These stories are set to dark, cobwebby tunes full of tangled guitars and claustrophobic atmospheres. The songs are topped off with singer Aidan Moffat's caustic mutter, the resigned sound of a man weary after too many evenings of too much red wine and too many misunderstandings, sighing to himself as he lies alone beneath twisted bedclothes. Arab Strap's music is slow and languid, but it's about as far from easy listening as you can get; these songs require a serious expenditure of emotional energy, but they're worth it.

The band got started in 1995 in Falkirk, Scotland, a small town with little more than a handful of rundown pubs midway between Glasgow and Edinburgh, when a couple of locals, Moffat and guitarist Malcom Middleton, started playing music together. The pair, drawn together by a mutual feeling of small-town disillusionment and a fondness for Chicago/Louisville indie bands including Slint and Smog, launched a project together which they dubbed Arab Strap (their cheeky name comes from a certain romantic aid commonly deployed by horse breeders). The duo's 1996 debut single "The First Big Weekend," a woozy, boozy tale of a summer weekend, took the U.K. by storm. They soon recruited bassist Gary Miller and drummer David Gow to fill out the band and followed up the single in late 1996 with their first full-length paean to sexual, emotional, and substance-related dysfunction, The Week Never Starts Round Here, on the highly regarded Scottish label Chemikal Underground. The record got the attention of New York's Matador Records, which gave the The Week a U.S. release. In 1998 Arab Strap issued their sophomore effort, Philophobia (Chemikal Underground/Matador), another bleak, muttering affair, the title of which literally means "fear of love," pretty much cutting to the lyrical heart of Arab Strap's overall subject matter.

After Philophobia, Arab Strap left Chemikal Underground (and consequently Matador) in favor of England's Go! Beat Records, which in early 1999 released their critically acclaimed live disc, Mad for Sadness, culled from a '98 performance at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall. Later that year, Arab Strap released the Cherubs EP and the Elephant Shoe LP in short succession (all three recordings were later licensed to New York-based Jetset Records for U.S. release). On Cherubs and Elephant Shoe, Arab Strap showed they hadn't changed, offering the same murky, gloomy arrangements, combining forlorn electric guitar, occasional cello and piano, moody synthesized textures, and seemingly incongruous programmed beats. Moffat continued to mutter shockingly forthright lyrics in his patented blearily caustic sing-speak. Yet while they were as full of piss as ever, Arab Strap seemed to shift away ever so slightly from the absolute soul-freezing desolation that marked their previous work. The pain was no longer cloaked in distancing cynicism; it seemed closer to the surface now, making the music just as challenging, but maybe a bit more mature.

Mature though Elephant Shoe may have been, its oppressive, swirling claustrophobia failed to endear the band to its new label, which wanted Arab Strap to be more accessible. As might be expected Moffat and Middleton refused to budge an inch, and soon returned to Chemikal Underground, where the prodigal sons were greeted with open arms. In early 2001, Arab Strap resurfaced with The Red Thread, their fourth studio album in five years, once again submerging their loyal self-flagellating listeners in their existentialist's paradise of dystopia and dipsomania.

Has anything changed for the morose duo on their 2003 record Monday at the Hug & Pint? From the title of the album and a couple of its songs -- see "Meanwhile, At the Bar, A Drunkard Muses" and "Fucking Little Bastards" -- it sounds like not much has, and the same could be said for the album's opener, "The Shy Retirer," which features a driving post-disco beat, caged strings, and Moffat's slurred, Scottish-accented indictments of romantic interaction. Hug & Pint opens to unexpected vistas from there however, perhaps the result of the two members' forays into other realms with The Reindeer Section and solo endeavors. The two previously mentioned song titles are both compositional surprises: the first is a resigned little floater of a ballad, featuring Moffat's pensive vocals over a finger-picked acoustic guitar, tinkling piano, and an angelic wordless backing chorus; the second offers thunderous percussion and droning, dirge-like instrumentation reminiscent of Indian music. The remainder of the album remains as relentlessly eclectic, with highlights including a spacious, beautiful piece of chamber-pop self-examination called "Who Named the Days?," the duo's postmodern take on Scottish traditional music ("Loch Leven"), and an anthemic (though all-to-brief) ode to the boozing life that bears the name of their first album, "The Week Never Starts Round Here." Moffat and Middleton may be sodden sots, but the more pints they wash down, the more inspired they seem to become. Five albums in and these hard-drinking misanthropes keep getting better.