Tuesday, November 24, 2009

#37. 'When I eat when I'm not hungry I'm sure I feel my face get fatter'

Arab Strap "The Shy Retirer"

"The drum machine makes me want to kill myself" - one of my friends in reference to Arab Strap

The formula that Arab Strap have been using since 1996 is a flawed one, I'll be the first to admit that. For every element of their basic sound that's pleasant - Malcolm Middleton's imprecise but evocative guitar arpeggios, Aidan Moffat's sad bastard drawl - there's the fucking drum machine sputtering in the background. It's a cheap drum machine no less, not one of those fancy ones you hear on pop radio that's almost indistinguishable from a human with impeccable timing but one that screams 'I AM A DRUM MACHINE!' over every minute of the band's discography. It takes away from the intimacy that the duo have in their best moments and the way its mechanical nature rubs against Middleton's distinctly human guitar playing could be interesting if the drum machine wasn't so grating on its own.

And yet when you get down to it the band have some songs that the damn thing can't ruin. Of course by the time their 5th album, 2003's Monday at the Hug and Pint, rolled around the more egregious iterations of the click track were gone, and while the band was still utilizing an obviously mechanical drummer it didn't sound quite as horrible as it had on their first few albums. The songs themselves were also showing a marked progression, still hitting the same lyrical notes as before - Moffat's usual combination of songs about girlfriends, ex girlfriends, getting shitfaced and fucking - but there was a big change: he sounded somewhat happy about it. "The Shy Retirer" especially was more jubilant than any song of theirs since their first single, at least until you looked at the lyrics, and between Middleton's fluid arpeggios and the sampled strings there was more than enough to distract from the obnoxious fake percussion. It was about as perfect as an Arab Strap song could get, not losing any of the distinct elements of their sound but doing something within that framework to make the most of its shortcomings.

Lyrically it's still firmly in Moffat's wheelhouse, still concerned primarily with the pub scene and getting fresh with the fly women, but here it seems to be tackled from a different angle. Any other song would have Moffat either having just struck out or reminiscing about a particular encounter with the nostalgia tempered with an undercurrent of malaise. Here he's almost in the same league as Greg Dulli in terms of sheer bravado, albeit slightly tempered with his normal self-deprecation, s he goes about trying to bring someone home. It's slightly shocking to hear him so involved, although the song's arrangement all but requires it of him, and even more out of the ordinary to hear him bust out something like 'I'm always moanin'/but you jump-start my serotonin' without a hint of reservation. It's Moffat unleashed in a sense, not focusing on the worst of his experiences but revelling in the thrill of pursuit even if its futile. Even when the futility of it comes up it's not dwelt on for more than a brief verse before the song dives back into the more positive sounding main riff and Moffat declaring 'tonight i'm letting go' with more conviction than I'd have guessed he'd be able to muster for such a sentiment.

Like I said, this is probably the happiest the band's ever sounded. The tempo is breakneck when compared to anything they'd done previously ("First Big Weekend" excepted) and the whole arrangement seems to stay in a major key for the full length, not exactly the sort of thing you'd expect from the misers involved. The strings, which do have their mournful moments - the mid-song break especially would sound kinda depressing if it weren't topping out at such a quick tempo - are damn near sprightly during the verses and Middleton's guitar playing is a delight as always. There's still a good portion of self-deprecation and misery, but that's not the main idea this time out and the song is so much better for it. While it's not like I'd approve of Arab Strap going all happy 100% of the time, the few times they dial down the misery it generally makes for a great song, and I wouldn't hesitate to call "The Shy Retirer" the best of these.

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