Arab Strap
The Week Never Starts Around Here and Philophobia
Chemikal Underground

For more than 10 years between 1995 and 2006, Arab Strap were one of the most under-appreciated—if not misunderstood—bands on the indie rock landscape. A partnership between vocalist Aidan Moffat and guitarist Malcolm Middleton formed in Falkirk, Scotland, the duo took its name from an ancient type of cock ring and set about recording albums which captured the intimate details of relationships that most people are too bashful to discuss in public. Had Big Black not already used the title, surely they would have made Songs About Fucking.

For those who took the time to get to know the band and their records, though, there was genius to be found in that muttered broguery. The band’s first single, 1996’s “The First Big Weekend,” is just a spoken recounting of the weekend’s travails (which include a pub quiz and watching The Simpsons among dancing and bar hopping) set to a brisk drumbeat and muted bassline, but shows Arab Strap’s innate ability to create poignancy without being melodramatic about it.

It is that sensibility that informed the bulk of the duo’s discography, but on the band’s first two records, the recently reissued (in deluxe format) The Week Never Starts Around Here and Philophobia, Arab Strap also taps into a certain amount of minimalism. While that stark approach stood out, it was the emotional nakedness of the Arab Strap oeuvre that was most striking. As such, they expressed—both lyrically and sonically—the morning after when the flood of images and elation and regret from the prior night’s adventures come flooding back as the fuzz of sleep gives away to the after-effects of drugs and drink.

While including “The First Big Weekend,” The Week Never Starts Around Here” still revealed a band not completely developed. Aidan and Malcolm fluctuate between drab minimalism (“Coming Down”) and folkish revelation (“Little Girls”), while“The Clearing” precipitates the saturated sounds the band would perfect on The Red Thread and Monday at the Hug & Pint, even if it’s only comprised of a guitar line and drum machine beats. It’s by no means a bad start, but it’s incohesive, like mere gathered sketches when compared to the masterpieces the band was yet to create.

Philophobia arrived in 1998 fully formed. Beginning with Moffat’s most frequently quoted line (“It was the biggest cock you’d ever seen, but you have no idea where that cock has been.”) from the leadoff “Packs of Three,” the album’s pervasive narcotic pall has the gravitational pull of the Death Star. It is near impossible not to be pulled into its world, or at the very least, to have some macabre fascination with it. Here, Arab Strap rendered its aesthetic over the whole of the album. Even when expressing his own ennui, Moffat takes on the weight of the world, channeling it into songs for the drinking class. On “Here We Go,” Middleton helps bring out the tenderness in his partner’s mumbled reverie on knowing the object of his affection is just killing time with him, and “Piglet” deals with similar potential infidelities, comprised mostly of a suspicious interrogation. It is the musical equivalent of shining a spotlight on the darkest, most insecure corner of one’s psyche.

The deluxe editions include unreleased Peel Sessions and live tracks, but those alternate versions aren’t particularly necessary. No, it is the original albums at the core of these releases that are the necessities. Arab Strap rarely faltered throughout their career (the biggest letdown was when they broke up), and these two records reveal the first steps they took from their barstools to the recording studio.
Stephen Slaybaugh