ARAB STRAP: THE LAST ROMANCE (2005)
1) Stink; 2) (If There's) No Hope For Us; 3) Chat In Amsterdam, Winter 2003; 4) Don't Ask Me To Dance; 5) Confessions Of A Big Brother; 6) Come Round And Love Me; 7) Speed-Date; 8) Dream Sequence; 9) Fine Tuning; 10) There Is No Ending; 11*) El Paso Song; 12*) Go Back To The Sea.
Arab Strap may not have been the best band in the world, or even the best band in Scotland, but the general outlook of their output is bizarre enough to guarantee them a free ride on the musical history train all by itself. For instance, how does one really explain the fact that it took them ten years of essentially re-writing the same old dirge in order to get around to an album significantly different from the rest — and then disband, as if that were their ultimate goal, and now that the goal has been achieved, we can all happily go home?
No drum machines — at all. Plenty of fast, driving tempos to break up the funeral procession style every time it threatens to annul the differences between songs. Aidan Moffat's occasional attempts to modulate his voice into a sonic flow that, with a bit of a stretch, could be called «singing» (and generally on-key at that). Even some sort of moderately optimistic vibe, most clearly evident on the fanfare-driven album closer 'There Is No Ending'. And yet, at the same time, the original spirit of Arab Strap is fully preserved: any accusations of «falling in with the alt-rock crowd» would be completely ridiculous, because the trademarks — mantra-folk acoustic riffs, somber violin counter-melodies, dark lyrical topics revolving around alcohol intake and animalistic copulation, etc. — are all there.
More importantly, after a few listens, the album does come across as the final stage of a journey through various stages of one's self-consciousness. As boring as it may be for some of the young 'uns, a thing called responsibility enters the picture: responsibility both from a musical point of view, as the album is made more generally accessible without sacrificing artistic integrity, and a general-artistic point of view as well. To put it simply, the point of The Last Romance is to show that Moffat and Middleton nowadays do give a fuck about what's going on, contrary to all those early years when they not only didn't, but considered it cool to let all their fans love them exactly for the fact that they didn't.
Hence, 'Confessions Of A Big Brother', which, in a way, may be the duo's masterpiece: a cleanly, near-gorgeously recorded acoustic ballad, with Moffat's lines occasionally echoed by a «baroque» cello part — beginning with the line "I used to be so proud of thinking I was such a liar", but ending with the realization that "I don't want to spoil your fun, but you don't have to hurt someone". And somehow it makes you feel that, perhaps, from time to time, there does arise a need to spurt out a morally positive truism instead of a morally neutral, or shock-value morally negative, genius-quality innovative string of words.
'Dream Sequence', despite the need to incorporate some obligatory dirty imagery (even pure romantic love for these guys is undetachable from golden showers), is essentially a sentimental lyrical anthem, whose main piano melody line is stately rather than sad, uplifting rather than depressing. On 'Fine Tuning', another pleasant acoustic ballad, Moffat openly admits that "You're useless at drinking, but these days I've been thinking I doubt we're going to need it" — abstinence detected! And then, as the guitars, organs, and mighty brass of 'There Is No Ending' weave out a near-symphonic melody, each few bars of which descend into a satisfyingly conclusive mood, what we hear is: "Not everything must end, not every romance must descend, not every lover's pact decays, not every sad mistake replays". Now that's even more optimistic than what the late George Harrison used to tell us about all the things that must pass, and the late George Harrison, in the long run, was a fairly optimistic kind of fellow.
Whether it is Arab Strap's friendship with Mogwai (whose keyboard player Barry Burns actually guests on the album), or just the basic process of growing up that is responsible for this change of attitude is nowhere near as important as the fact that The Last Romance does work terribly well as a swan song, and that even some of the band's most unbearable albums, conceptually, gain from its existence — with this last thread, they are all joined together in one meaningful whole. But do not take this as an advice to begin your acquaintance with these guys with this record: no matter how accessible it is, it really only makes sense within the overall context. In order to like The Last Romance, I had first to hate The Red Thread.
Of course, if you happen to like The Red Thread, you will have to wait your turn to grow up to like The Last Romance — otherwise, it will be too sissy-pissy for your hipster tastes. But as for me, I happily award a thumbs up both to the record, and, with it, to the entire career of these two awful Scots. And, for the record, since their parting ways, both have had solo careers, of which Malcolm Middleton's seems not only to have been the more productive, but also the more worthy in general: his solo albums pick up quite well from the «freshly grown-up» stage of The Last Romance and proceed from there — highly recommended, although I have no idea if these here reviews will ever get around to them.
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