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Arab Strap : The Language of Loathing

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: May 6, 2003

Arab Strap
w/ Bright Eyes, Head of Femur
Sunday, May 11
Sokol Auditorium

13th and Martha



Lining up an interview with Arab Strap's Malcolm Middleton isn't terribly difficult. Just arrange something with the band's publicist and call the tour manager for the cell phone number. Simple as that.

No, the hard part is figuring out what's being said once you get him on the phone.

Middleton, a native of Falkirk, Scotland, a town of 120,000 that lies between Edinburgh and Glasgow, speaks with a thick brogue that -- when coupled with his ultra-quick delivery and a crackling cell phone connection -- is nearly impossible to decipher. A week after the interview, looking over the notes, there wasn't much to draw from.

It didn't matter really, because the only way to really understand Middleton and his Arab Strap partner, vocalist Aidan Moffat, is to listen to their music.



Arab Strap is touring with Omaha phenomenon Bright Eyes in support of their new full-length, Monday at the Hug & Pint, released in April by indie rock powerhouse label Matador Records. Like past Arab Strap efforts, the CD is earmarked by Middleton's eclectic instrumentation that rocks as much as it wisps, and Moffett's tales of failure, despair and self-loathing seen through the half-closed eyes of a tired, drunken poet.

The CD is a collection of snarly scoot-a-long trip-hop, droll feedback-laden head trips and lilting strolls through a dark mire of ethnic folk. It opens with the poppy electronic drums and strings of "The Shy Retirer," where Moffat spits out lines of self-hate and longing from the floor of a crowded Euro-disco: "Look at us just stand and stare, look at them just pose and pout / And we'll all be standing here until the pigs chuck us out."

Blend that with the wall of My-Bloody-Valentine grind guitars and circle-of-doom tribal drums of "Fucking Little Bastards," where Moffat angrily disowns his old friends who know him too well: "They've scrutinized the mistakes I've been making / They know who I've fucked, they know what I've taken / They've seen me in the shower with shit down my legs / They've seen me searching a stranger's house for dregs." Heart warming.

Just when things begin to get a little too bleak, along come the pipes of "Loch Leven" to stir up Brigadoon-esque visions of the Scottish homeland, only to be quickly dashed by Moffett's description of superstores and car alarms. Monday at the Hug & Pint is 13 dark images captured in Middleton and Moffat's mirrored reflection, stark and unbearable in its loneliness, but far too inviting to look away.

Middleton said there was no "master plan" behind the new recording. "The Red Thread (their previous full-length) was really dark," he said. "We wanted something fun this time, and we wanted to make sure each song was more fun to play."

He called the bagpipes and violin on "Lock Leven" "totally cheesy and over the top."

"We thought about dropping it, but left it in. We thought it could slow the CD down too much. We don't perform it live, but are thinking of using it as an intro track before our set."

Middleton said the tour with Bright Eyes has been a change of pace from their usual performances. "We've been playing these all-ages shows and weren't prepared for the screaming girls," he said. "It was quite a change, and much more noticeable from our other gigs. It's a good chance to get our music out to a different audience."

The Arab Strap / Bright Eyes connection goes back a couple years. Both bands share the same publicist in Britain and have toured together before, with Bright Eyes as the opener. Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis even put in guest appearances on a couple Hug & Pint tracks.

The two bands shared a classic road moment April 12 in Pomona, California, when Oberst sang "Happy Birthday" to Moffett from stage in honor of his 30th birthday. In return, Moffat walked onto the stage and gave Oberst more than a friendly peck on the cheek. "…He called me a prude so I snogged him," Moffat said in his tour diary, "and for a brief moment I was the envy of at least 550 fawning lassies. Seriously, I love that boy, and his tongue's fucking HUGE."

Middleton remembered the evening well. "We're thinking of maybe making their kiss a regular part of the act," he said.

"We've been playing these all-ages shows and weren't prepared for the screaming girls."




Bright Eyes headlines the May 11 show at Sokol Auditorium. Fans should expect a set similar to what singer/songwriter Conor Oberst and company performed at their March 30 Sokol Underground gig. That performance included mostly songs from his most recent Saddle Creek release -- Lifted, or the Story is in the Soil Keep Your Ear to the Ground, along with a few chestnuts from earlier releases, and the anti-war song "One Foot in Front of the Other" from the new Saddle Creek 50 compilation. Supporting Oberst as Bright Eyes on this tour is Mike Mogis on guitar and vibes, Matt Focht (Head of Femur) on drums, Alex McManus on guitars, Nick White (Tilly and the Wall) on keyboards, and Stephanie Drootin (the newest member of The Good Life) on bass.

Opening the evening is Chicago's Head of Femur, whose music takes cues from '80s-era art projects such as Talking Heads, Brian Eno and Roxy Music and melds it into something wholly original. The band has a new full-length, Ringodom Or Proctor, slated for release this summer on Portland's Greyday Productions.

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Portions published in The Omaha Weekly-Reader May 7, 2003. Copyright 2003 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved. Photo of Arab Strap by Neale Smith © 2003, used by permission.