The Delgados-Hate

January 18, 2012

The Delgados

Hate (Mantra 2002)

The Delgados kind of flew under the radar of most folks during their heyday. It’s a shame because they continuously progressed and evolved during their eight-year career into something truly special. Not only did they start their own influential record label, Chemikal Underground, which spawned the careers of Mogwai and Arab Strap, but they quietly released some of the most gorgeously bruised and bittersweet albums of the era. Between Peloton, The Great Eastern and Hate, this Scottish band recorded a trio of albums that will hopefully get the attention they deserve someday. The band was blessed with a knack for well-written odes to disappointment and despair and the tandem of vocalists Alun Woodward and Emma Pollock allowed the band to alternate between her stately and elegant singing and his more resigned and beaten tones. Ironically, as their music grew more orchestrated and gorgeous, their subject material and instrumental palette consisted solely of shades of grey. No one wins in these songs. No one finds true love. Everyone just drinks a bit too much and fixates on their flaws while pointing out the imperfections of others and how they let them down over and over again.

Hate sounds like a swan song and it probably should’ve been considering its followup Universal Audio was a shadow of what came before. There is nothing cheeky or ironic about the album title because it kind of sums up the tone of the lyrics and weary, late-night ambiance of a prickly album about the failings of the world and those who live on its accursed surface. It’s kind of odd that they aligned themselves with producer Dave Fridmann who is most famous for crafting kaleidoscopic orchestrations that are more style than substance. Best known for his work with Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips and MGMT, his work tends to be gorgeous at first glance, but as satisfying as an aesthetically pleasing confection that leaves you wanting soon after. However, his work on Hate and its predecessor The Great Eastern brings the band out of its cantankerous shell and coaxes plenty of bombast and drama to accompany the band’s predilection for delicate and dour slices of life.

Hate is as bleak as its namesake. Here you’ll find explorations of a man’s last moments before he takes his life, the embrace of the last halcyon moments before the end of a relationship and a plea for all to accept the fact that everyone’s heart harbors hateful intentions. All of this vitriol and self-loathing is couched in lush arrangements and laced with catchy choruses to mask its true intent, but this album is misanthropic to its core and all the better for it. It is a brutally honest exploration of what lurks behind our smiles and exposes the grim motivations behind our weaker moments. Hate is a walking contradiction that marries the most resplendent and ostentatious arrangements married to the most calamitous and desolate worldview and this conflict is the the source of its staying power and gravitas.

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.