I don’t know why but a lot of the indie bands that I like are Scottish. I like the nervous anxiety of Frightened Rabbit, the shoe-gazing, understated sound of The Twilight Sad, the post-rock experimentation of Mogwai, the lo-fi appeal of Meursault, the irreverent playfulness of Dogs Die in Hot Cars, the cute yet edgy music of Belle and Sebastian, the instantly likeable pop of Camera Obscura…. I could go on. There’s nothing really common between all the Scottish bands that I like. Alright, there is. I like the quirky accent that is common between many of the vocalists of these bands—notably, Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison and The Twilight Sad’s James Graham — but the music of each of these bands is not very similar.
Maybe it has something to do with my extreme fondness for another product that comes in a bottle and shares its provenance with these bands but I like Scottish bands. So when I (re)discovered Arab Strap, the fact that it was a Scottish band won me over before their music actually did. And, just for the record their name—which actually describes a device made of leather and a metal ring that men can use for…ahem…something that I shall not tell you more about (go Google!) had nothing to do with why I liked them.
Arab Strap are (well, were, really because the band broke up in 2006) a duo comprising singer Aidan Moffat and multi-instrumentalist Malcolm Middleton in 1995. They made it big with their very first single—The First Big Weekend, whose lyrics can be read like a short story, a story that seems honest and real and is actually about the two of them and their experience through a weekend. Take a peek at a bit from the song and you’ll probably see what I’m getting at: “It was a good night, everyone was nutted and I ended up dancing with some blonde girl. I thought she had been quite pretty until last night when Matthew informed me that she had, in fact, been a pig. When the club finished we wandered the streets for a while until we got to this 24-hour cafe but I didn’t like the look of it so we left and got a taxi back to Morag’s flat. I couldn’t sleep, so I sat about drinking someone else’s strawberry tonic wine and tried to keep everyone else up.”
Yes, Arab Strap’s songs are like that: stark, matter-of-fact, honest and funny. Not for the faint-hearted, some of their lyrics, though. I can’t reproduce the lyrics of some their songs such as Piglet or Packs of Three but suffice it to say that they infuse oodles of wit (Packs of Three refers to what is colloquially known as ‘rubbers’), often very risqué in nature, in their compositions. Their songs are mainly about love, betrayal, rejection and disillusionment but even when they are sad they are beautiful.
Although I had heard a few tracks by Arab Strap years back, I hadn’t been able to get into the band till a few weeks back when I acquired two albums, The Week Never Starts Round Here (released in 1996) and Philophobia (1998). As the two spun around on my iPod, the band began growing on me. The under-stated humour in the lyrics and the minimalist yet carefully crafted musical arrangements were what made me an instant fan. Arab Strap’s music is not in your face and their songs make much about quotidian life and experiences that most of their contemporaries would probably never have thought of writing about. Yet there is something reassuringly soothing about their curiously sad-but-at-the-same-time-funny songs, making them easily accessible and eminently listenable.
Then I realised why I was enjoying Arab Strap so much. It was because Arab Strap reminded me so much of a current band that I love very much, The National. Download Central has raved in the past about The National, the indie band from Brooklyn, New York, which may well be on its way to finding big mainstream success. The similarities between Arab Strap and The National are striking. And I don’t know why I haven’t read about this before. Most music writers have listed British bands as one of the influences on The National’s music, citing the names of The Kinks, The Cure and The Smiths, and it’s not certain whether The National’s talented vocalist Matt Berninger is a fan of Arab Strap’s Aidan Moffat but after listening to the Scottish duo, I could easily re-dub The National as a contemporary (and, okay, American) avatar of Arab Strap. With a difference, though. There was no way that Arab Strap when they were around could have hoped for mainstream success of the kind that The National are within kissing distance of today.
It’s a pity that Arab Strap disbanded after 11 years and six studio albums but I do believe if they were still around (and I don’t have a clue as to what Moffat and Middleton are up to today), they could have taken a shy at a much larger following. But that’s just my hypothesis. What’s important is that their music is around and if nothing else here’s hoping that more bands are influenced by that Scottish duo with a slightly lecherous sense of humour.