Arab Strap

Elephant Shoe (Jetset 1999)

In the mythos of latter-day Scottish indie pop, Arab Strap were born to serve as Lucifer opposite the Christly-clean Belle and Sebastian. It was less than a year on from Belle & Sebastian’s breakthrough, If You’re Feeling Sinister, that Arab Strap pooled their analog resources to make a distinctly American (re: Drag City) indie rock record, spiked with a tar-thick Scottish brogue, The Week Never Starts Round Here. Their style was a slovenly, bedroom-spare assembly of nicotine-drabbed booze laments, and Raymond Carver-like orts of lives wretched and heretofore underexamined–the Television Personalities were rolling in their unmade graves.

Fast forward half a decade: no one remembered Trainspotting; Belle and Sebastian’s earnest democracy bled them of any remaining mystique, scattering far and wide their remaining flecks of sharp songwriting; and still no one knew who the fuck the incendiary Frankie Miller was.

That Orange Juice revival was not yet upon us.

So Elephant Shoe was a marvelous surprise from a band that seemed poised to peddle their Casio pop wares on into the twilight with no hope for variation or discount.

Truthfully, there isn’t a hell of a lot of variation here.

But that’s good. Because instead of going calypso, or grime, or whatever, Arab Strap zeroed in on their familiar sump of couch jockey malaise, this time with an almost cosmic sense of resonance to round out their characteristic self-deprecations. Needless to say, if Elephant Shoe had been this band’s point of departure their name in lights might be much larger (and shining still).

“Cherubs” opens the record with a canned goth beat and high register piano straight from early Sisters of Mercy. And when Malcolm Middleton pipes in it’s with a kind of obtusely seductive sincerity that always touched the edges of Arab Strap, but never quite needled to the heart. Suddenly it does.

The ensuing set is well-measured, sophisticated, and creatively aware of the lo-fi McGuffin and how to work with it. It does occasionally sputter, but not without hitting some terrific auburn grace notes along the way.

“Aries The Ram” is one of them. It’s a well-worn path for Arab Strap: plodding, reminiscent fragments of a dim romantic memory. But the air is different. The pristine guitar accents recall And Also The Trees in their pastoral zenith, and other such neo-Edwardian heaviness. It’s peculiar, though welcome; there was a creeping possibility that Arab Strap would go down as the Scottish Smog. Inside the rich gothic spaces of Elephant Shoe there are plentiful traces of Wild Love and Red Apple Falls. Though really, something in the bones of Arab Strap is just a little to impish and unserious. It’s better that way.