Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Mad for Sadness

Arab Strap
Cafe Du Nord, San Francisco

Wow, what a difference. Camille & I last saw this band at the Guinguette Pirate in Paris, which is actually an old Chinese junk docked on the banks of the Seine. It's a horrible venue for live music. Woozy, cramped, navy toilets. They have the right idea, in that it resembles an awful dive bar, but at least in an awful dive bar you don't have to walk down the gangway for fresh air, or wonder if there's sewage in your drink.

This was the summer of 2003. Arab Strap had released Monday at the Hug & Pint the previous April, and was touring on it. They were not happy. Which, to anyone who's heard their music, will seem like a redundant statement. But they even seemed unhappy beyond the general level of gloom and disgust for which they're adored and/or detested, depending on your view.

The concert in 2003 was pretty awful, what with the sound problems and onstage bickering, but I've come to love this band deeply since then. Somehow they made it onto the list of artists whose releases I will always buy new, not used, as soon as they come out. I don't know what it was about their sound that got to me, but it was something. Slow, echoing fingerpicked guitar, plodding drum machine, and half-sung, half-growled, half-whispered lyrics about alcolhol and one-night stands in an impenetrable Scottish brogue. Occasional strings, plinky pianos, effects.

I know, I know, it sounds irresistable. But Arab Strap will seduce you (like fruits and vegetables, or a woman – (c) Oliver Babish). Lead singer Aidan Moffat has a Serge Gainsbourg-like delivery, and a rather distinctive way with a couplet. From “Packs of Three,” off Philophobia:

It was the biggest cock you’d ever seen
But you’ve no idea where that cock has been
You said you were careful, you never were with me
I heard you did it four times and johnnies come in packs of three

Meanwhile, guitarist Malcolm Middleton seems to have an endless supply of reflective, slowly-winding guitar backdrops. Rather than developing chord structures, bridges, etc., he strings these long lines together, so the overall effect is something between a guitar and a music-box drone with flange. It's distinctive, and immediately unsettling.

Over the course of the last ten years, the band has cautiously added new elements to their palette. Strings, bagpipes, music boxes, percussion. Each album gets a little more conventionally “listenable.” I actually like that they seem to work slowly and deliberately on their sound, rather than making a constant effort to fling themselves into new areas. They’re the perfect example of how doing the same thing over and over can work. Like the Morgan Freeman of Scottish indie rock.

Alright, the show. The first opener was A Whisper in the Noise. They courageously started with a 10-minute long slow tune. I leaned over to Camille and said “Side one of The Wall called, and they want their shouty, echo-y vocals back,” which she thought was funny. Then I told her I needed to remember that for the blog, and she retracted her statement, saying it wasn’t quote, “funny enough for the internet.” To which, of course, I had to respond: “If yeh don’t eat your meat, how can yeh have any pudding? How can ye have any pudding if yeh don’t eat your meat!?” I guess I don’t remember much more about the opener. They didn’t particularly pique my interest. Kind of detached and plodding for my taste. I feel bad saying that, since they suffered some misfortune later on in the tour, but being weird is not the same as being good. And even though I like weird music, I don’t like it because it’s weird. To be fair, I was hungry and waiting at the bar with my wife, who was also hungry (and a little cranky), so who knows.

His Name is Alive had the middle spot. I can’t get into their music too much. Some of it is terrific, some is just boring, wandering nonsense. “I Thought I Saw,” from their new album Detrola, is a super singable Motown-type shuffle, with horns and scratchy guitar goodness. It got the patented Camille head-bounce, which is hard to earn. But that song proved an exception during the show, and is probably an exception in their overall catalogue. The majority of their music left me cold, bored, and annoyed that I didn’t spend my money on something else. It’s worth noting, though, that their recorded output, from what I’ve sampled on ITunes, seems more varied than what they presented, and might offer more to eclectic ears. Unfortunately neither the songs nor the performance had the immediacy to translate well in a live context. Worse, their setlist was sequenced funny. It didn’t have much variety, and it didn’t build. ¾ of the way through, when you should be warming up to a band, getting comfortable with their sound and style, I was wishing HNIA would get off. That’s never a good sign.

Oh, right, the headliner. Well, they fucking killed. They’re in rock band mode now – no strings, two guitars, bass, and live drums instead of a machine. The concert opened with “Stink,” the snarling first track on their new LP, The Last Romance. The buzz on this album is that it’s more “upbeat” than the previous ones (true), but it’s comforting to know that even with sprightlier tempos, they haven’t strayed too far from the template. The first line of Stink is “Burn these sheets that we’ve just fucked in,” and it goes pretty much downhill from there. They are not Kool & The Gang. They tore through some new songs, including the new LP’s first single, “Dream Sequence,” as well as “(If There’s) No Hope For Us” and “Don’t Ask Me To Dance.” Like the older material, these songs explore the claustrophobic, disorienting nature of love and the need to escape, or at least get your bearings. But the upswing in pace and rock-ier instrumentation makes the music’s hopeful side a little more credible. Listening to the earlier albums, I had trouble believing that Aidan Moffat actually wanted his drunken, destructive lovelife to change. If he wasn’t addicted to wallowing, he was at least sincerely committed to it. The Last Romance, on the other hand, has a struggling, driven aspect to it that fundamentally alters the perspective – to me, at least. It’s just more hopeful, there’s no other way to say it.

As the show progressed they dug back into their ten-year catalogue for “Pyjamas,” “Who Named the Days,” “New Birds,” and “Packs of Three.” Though “Who Named the Days” is a gorgeous, whispered ballad, the overall crowd response & rapt sing-along leads me to believe that it’s become a minor anthem despite their best intentions. They closed the set with “There is No Ending,” an absurdly catchy uptempo dance number with a big trumpet hook and reluctantly optimistic lyrics. Yeah, it talks about pedophiles and nuclear holocaust, but it still falls squarely into the “love song of resistance” mold – sort of like “No Surrender” being covered by the patrons of a sports pub in the Northern UK. You know – “Love will keep us together…again.” My favorite part:

If you can love my growing gut, my rotten teeth, and graying hair
Then I can guarantee I’ll do the same as long as you can bear.
If you love my little poofy hands, my skinny arms and reeking feet
The way I dance the way I eat…

Plates may smash and doors may slam, my comments may be less than kind
But that won’t mean I’ve changed my mind
I’m a huffy prick the best of times, I love to sulk and shout and squeal
But please don’t doubt the way I feel.

For the encore, Aidan and Malcolm came back with an acoustic guitar and took requests. It offered a great window into the heart of the band, and a picture into how they must of looked, felt, and sounded back in the mid-nineties. I’m one of the fans that’s always glad (so far) to see them change their approach to music, and how it reflects their outlook on life, but it was nice to get a glimpse during the encore of the bare elements that called critical attention to Arab Strap a decade years ago: brutal honesty, dark humor, and passionate longing of the very modern, urban variety.

So Arab Strap was great. As for the other openers? Well, I’ll put it this way. They were not Scottish.

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