Amidst the shiny, happy, dot-com people of the new millennium, Falkirk, Scotland's Arab Strap (named after a sexual device that props up problematic erections) stumble about like a nasty beer fart in a crowded elevator, stinking up the joint with their low-rent tales of besotted broken hearts, treacherous birds (the kind with breasts, not wings), menstrual blood on johnnies (condoms, for the uninitiated) and even (gasp!) the odd glimpse of redemption.
Yes, Arab Strap that's core duo Malcolm Middleton on most things musical and Aidan Moffat on most things not are indeed the anti-Britneys of the current music scene, most definitely not "*NSync" with these times. Not for them, a well-adjusted world fueled by Prozac and Viagra: "I pulled the ex last night, but I couldn't get it up," intones Moffat in his characteristically becalmed brogue on this impressive live album's opening track, "Intro/ My Favourite Muse." "Too much to drink, too much to say," he explains. "She picked her clothes up off the floor and headed for the door." Such anticlimaxes are not uncommon in the twilight world of the Strap, where the little things are indeed the big things.
For those already familiar with the discreet charms of previous Strap studio efforts, such as 1996's The Week Never Starts Round Here and '98's Philophobia (the latter of which comprises the bulk of the source material for this set), the big kick here is how deftly Arab Strap transform to the stage their brand of low-key melancholia. (Imagine Charles Bukowski or Irvine Welsh reading poetry with musical accompaniment provided by Joy Division, and you've got the general idea.) While the basic Arab Strap sound as heard on "Here We Go" circular guitar riffs, sparkling keyboards and the odd clicking drum machine remains the band's signature, with its aural majesty belying the often sordid subject matter recounted in Moffat's slurry sing-speak, the bedsit vibe of songs such as "New Birds" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Piglet" (RealAudio excerpt) are dynamically transformed here with the help of new lineup additions Gary Miller (bass) and David Gow (drums/keyboards). The latter, a tale of jealousy, betrayal and resentment, especially rages as Moffat delivers a knockout evaluation of an ex-lover ("When we were out with your friends, I might as well have been no one/ And you can't get over your dead dog … Well, it takes one to know one"), followed by a howling electric guitar that drives the emotional pitch even higher.
While "Piglet" merely nicks the drum pattern from Joy Divison's "Passover," the boys go whole hog on "Girls of Summer" (RealAudio excerpt), which sports a lengthy coda that could have been taken straight from "Blue Monday"era New Order. Yet it is here the difference between Arab Strap and their most obvious influences is also quite apparent. Where modernists Joy Division and early New Order were emotionally forbidding and glacial, Arab Strap is wide-open and messy, preferring to make its art by depicting the choices and actions of everyday life both good and bad that define us.
In the light of that and an increasingly anti-human cyberworld, there are worse things than to lift a pint, or three, with Arab Strap.