Arab Strap Monday at the Hug and Pint

[Matador; 2003]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: indie rock, pastoral folk-rock, post rock, slowcore
Others: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Hood, Mogwai, Belle & Sebastian

Admittedly, I’ve not had much exposure to the music of Arab Strap, other than the knowledge that they’re a gloomy Scottish folk-rock group with a penchant for drunken lyrics that deal with grim and personal subject matter. I had previously listened to The Red Thread and Elephant Shoe once or twice apiece, although I never really had the chance to delve into them very deeply. Consequently, I was able to approach the new Arab Strap record, Monday at the Hug and Pint, with an open mind. The title alone indicates that this album is likely to be packed with Scottish drinking songs; and although this is the case, to some degree, there’s quite a wide variety to choose from.

The album opens on an upbeat note with “The Shy Retirer.” A sad and melodic cello melody accompanies the acoustic guitar and an 80s style drum machine on this track, until it is joined by more strings. Vocalist Aidan Moffat sings in an extremely thick, almost drunken Scottish brogue which adds a gritty edginess to the songs. Listening to the man sing, it’s hard to anticipate from line to line whether he’s about to let loose on a vitriolic tirade or wax melancholy over a lost love. “The Shy Retirer” is notable in that it fuses pastoral Scottish balladry with a contemporary electronic aesthetic. The electro drum machine beat is oddly complementary to the strings and acoustic guitar. The lyrics on this and many other tracks on the record have a grimly humorous narrative quality, which I find both appealing and engaging.

The album slows its pace a bit on “Meanwhile at the Bar a Drunkard Muses,” in which the acoustic guitar and melancholy vocals are overtaken by a soft piano melody and a heavenly, angelic chorus, although the vocals are painfully sad and spleen-filled. Moffat sings as if he’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders, and his nihilistic, misanthropic point of view becomes particularly apparent on this track. The third track, “Fucking Little Bastards,” again changes the record’s pace quite dramatically. Rhythms, violently pounded tom toms and heavily distorted guitar, form the backdrop for Moffat’s vocals. The song builds up a violent momentum, culminating in crashing cymbals and snare drums and squealing feedback, until the drums slow down to a sluggish, steady pace. Musically, this track has a something of a post-rock feel to it, although lyrically it’s another self-loathing affair.

“Peep Peep” is another drum machine-driven track, albeit with blissed-out guitars and a slowcore aesthetic. Unlike The Red Thread and Elephant Shoe, Monday at the Hug and Pint is musically a much less consistent record. Interestingly, all of the tracks segue into each other, although each individual track is considerably different than the previous one. It’s almost as if Arab Strap is deliberately trying to emphasize the disjointed nature of the record. Following on the heels of “Peep Peep,” “Flirt” is an upbeat track with live drums, beautiful, finger-picked acoustic guitar, and some nice slide guitar playing as well. Again, Moffat’s vocals remain in consistently morose form. The following track, “Who Named the Days?,” is another cello and violin-driven number with melancholy vocals, and lyrics that sound as if they were written on a bar napkin.

Arab Strap openly revel in their Scottish heritage. “Loch Leven (Intro)” begins with the sound of rain falling, followed by bagpipes and is another interesting fusion of regional pastoral music combined with technology. The bagpipes are exposed as a sample, however, when somebody begins manually scratching the record on which the bagpipes are playing. “Loch Leven” then begins with some horribly misanthropic, and again, utterly self-loathing lyrics. It’s amazing how beautiful the tracks on Monday at the Hug and Pint are, until the lyrics are scrutinized. Arab Strap embody an extremely odd paradox, which is the combination of gorgeous, melodic music and drunken, depressive lyrics-- although “Serenade,” one of the last tracks on the record, adds an almost uplifting note to Monday at the Hug and Pint. Another driving drum machine beat carries the song along, and the lyrics could almost be construed as those of a twisted love song of sorts. 

One of the most intriguing things about listening to Arab Strap is having the ability to obtain a rare glimpse into someone else’s fractured psyche. In the case of Aidan Moffat, however, you almost wish you hadn’t. It’s like the clichéd train wreck analogy: you can’t seem to peel yourself away from the lyrics, even though you realize it might be better if you could. Lyrics do not get more personal and painfully honest than this. Repeated listens to Monday at the Hug and Pint led me to become fascinated by both the beauty of the music and the honesty of the lyrics, yet at times I almost felt the same sort of grim fascination as a child cowering under the covers, listening to his drunken father rage and wondering what is coming next.

1. The Shy Retirer
2. Meanwhile, At The Bar, A Drunkard Muses
3. Fucking Little Bastards
4. Peep Peep
5. Flirt
6. Who Named The Days?
7. Loch Leven Intro
8. Loch Leven
9. Glue
10. Act Of War
11. Serenade
12. The Week Never Starts Round Here
13. Pica Luna