Would James Graham or Scott Hutchison have started The Twilight Sad or Frightened Rabbit without the example Aidan Moffat?
John Lennon once said, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.” It’s grandiose to compare Arab Strap, the Scottish duo of Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton, to The Crown King of rock ‘n’ roll, but doesn’t every scene have an artist like that? There was no emo before Rites of Spring, no twee without The Pastels. Arab Strap pioneered something more nebulous: strange, brooding Scottish indie rock bands fronted by people unafraid to sing of their experiences in their own thick accents. Would James Graham or Scott Hutchison have started The Twilight Sad or Frightened Rabbit without the example Aidan Moffat? The closest Scots got at the time – Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian, naturally – felt tame compared to Moffat. It’s no wonder Graham himself has called him a “catalyst” in interviews – “It’d feel dishonest if I sang in an American tinge,” he told The 405 earlier this year. Before Arab Strap, there was nothing. The Week Never Starts Round Here was the birthplace of all of that, and though it’s clear how the band got from it to, say, Philophobia or Monday at the Hug & Pint, it’s still a strange creation point for a band.
Compared even to their sophomore record Philophobia, it sounds downright alienating. It’s just Moffat singing while Middleton plays guitar, and if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll get an occasional drum beat or bit of keyboard, also courtesy of Moffat. Sometimes, in the “The Clearing” and “Kate Moss,” everything drops out so that Moffat can drunkenly sing to himself. And even his singing isn’t so much “singing” as it is intermittent sing-talking mixed with actual talking – he’s not a singer, he’s a storyteller who performs rhythmically in congress with evocative guitar playing. Middleton’s able to use his guitar to put to music the drifting angst his bandmate exhibits ridiculously well, and though the band only got better from here, the interplay between the two is electrifying to hear. Together, the two are able to achieve a depressed folk version of what their cohorts in Mogwai were creating at the same time; is it any wonder that Moffat’s guest spot on “R U Still in 2 It” from Young Team works so well?
At the heart of everything is Moffat’s lyrics. “Angsty” doesn’t begin to capture his writing on The Week – and in general, truly; he exists in a state of permanent, self-loathing melancholy, over bitter romance and meaningless sex, two subjects on which he writes without peer. Examine, if you will, “I Work in a Saloon,” one of the most quintessential songs by the band. Over a drum machine beat, Middleton plays hypnotically, loud enough to drown out Moffat seemingly recounting a dream in which he’s a bartender “pulling shit pints for shit wages,” realizing that the bar is populated solely by women he’s fallen in love or lust with to one degree or another: “A pub full of conquests, knockbacks.” And then “you” walk in, brazenly stroll past the sea of scorned exes, stump him with a mixed drink he can’t make, and coyly leave him to him to pulling another pint.
This shouldn’t be a song, but he paints an unbelievable painting with his story: “Between the laughter I can hear my name,” “And the room becomes silent, except for the sound or your DMs scuffing on the floor.” He doubles down on all of this with the addicting “The First Big Weekend,” which drops the illusion of poetry and simply recounts a weekend at the beginning of summer and the bland chemistry of common life amidst steadily growing drum machine noise, cheesy handclap beats, and uncoordinated singalong vocals. Suddenly, canteen quiz failures, falling asleep drunk watching the football, and crying over “The Simpsons Clip Show” is worthy of a hook as catchy as “Went out for the weekend, it lasted forever/ High with our friends it’s officially summer. It’s not rock ‘n’ roll, it’s just their reality.
Even when he’s less direct, he captures the melancholia of romance effortlessly. On “Gourmet,” he gets a spot-on look at the rift between strangers with conflicting intentions “The other one there, I didn’t give two glances/ She’s in love with my soul – she thinks I’m attractive/ She foraged a smile, I saw the floor.” Elsewhere, he rattles off dirty rhymes like “I know you find my habits sickly/ I know sometimes I come too quickly/ I don’t mind jokes like two-stroke wonder/ Just don’t slash my trust asunder” with such impressive ease, you can miss how quasi-Shakespearian the phrase “don’t slash my trust asunder” is – and ignore how terrible the audio quality is.
The band’s aesthetic didn’t remain this alienating for long, and by the time they returned two years later with Philiphobia, they’d honed their craft impressively (“Packs of Three” alone distills all of the sex-based angst of The Week into just one song) and brought in a stable of other musicians to help them flesh everything out spectacularly, with at least three members of fellow Scotch mopers Belle & Sebastian (who later borrowed the band’s name for The Boy With the Arab Strap, much to Moffat’s chagrin). But what the band accomplished on Philophobia likely never could have happened without the seeds sown by The Week Never Starts Round Here. Even at its messiest, any indie rock fan who’s mad for sadness owes a debt of gratitude to that record’s bitter and shockingly human portraits of drunken horniness and loneliness – because without Arab Strap, there would be nothing.