ARAB STRAP The Week Never Starts Round Here (Chemikal Underground)

I must’ve heard about two minutes of the single "The First Big Weekend" before deciding that the debut album from Scottish beat ensemble Arab Strap was for me: imagine Irvine Welsh reborn as a D.I.Y. electronic punk band rewriting Pulp’s "Inside Susan", stuffed full of incisive observations on dole-, drink- and drug-fuelled hedonism, as well as surely being the first song to mention "The Simpsons" that wasn’t actually by them, it’s an instant classic of its type, whatever that type may be.

"The Week Never Starts Round Here" shackles it to another 45 minutes of largely slo-mo angst rock "Trainspotting" style, frequently abusive, occasionally scabrously funny, the best bits being far too inappropriate to quote in a family publication such as this, of course, although track titles such as "I Work In A Saloon", "General Plea To A Girlfriend" and "Kate Moss" might help you imagine the right ballpark. Maybe the rather obvious anti-production ethics can be a bit unremitting - even the lyrics admit the album’s (back) bedroom origins, and the combination of acoustic guitars and third-hand drum machine can not be said to remain fresh and inventive over the course of an entire album. But "The First Big Weekend" makes up for an awful lot, the happy sound of bright young Britain bombed out of its box.

ARAB STRAP Philophobia (Chemikal Underground)

"Philophobia" (it means a fear of falling in love) is the second album from the self-effacing Falkirk duo of Malcolm Middleton (most things musical) and Aidan Moffatt (most things not), and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s not exactly "Listen With Mother" material. The cover is the first warning shot: on the front there’s a painting of a (naked) ex-girlfriend of Moffatt’s (allegedly), and on the back a painting of the naked Moffatt himself - kind of like the sleeve of John & Yoko’s "Two Virgins", but not that much. Further clues can be gleaned from the song titles, which include "Packs Of Three", "New Birds" and "The First Time You’re Unfaithful". And their name is apparently derived from that given to ‘a device for sustaining flagging erections’, which I suspect is not a building term.

Unlike their debut album, "The Week Never Starts Around Here", which was more of a magical mystery tour through the hedonistic headrush of young people today, providing the music to a Guinness ad in the process, "Philophobia" is pretty much centred exclusively around sex, with the odd diversion through the stamping grounds of doomed or dying relationships for a little light, uh, relief. It’s not pretty, and, as Moffatt’s vocal technique is more one of recitation rather than singing, not overburdened with melody either. But his field reports from the battle of the sexes, obtained at what cost to himself and others we don’t know (although interviews suggest there’s an uncomfortably high proportion of his own life documented in these songs), are scarily observant and often scabrously funny. Sometimes, namely on "Islands", Eno ambience and Confucian wisdom collide to create a thing of almost accidental beauty.

Irrespective of whether anybody does it better, nobody does it like Arab Strap, evidenced by their habit of frequently being at the scene of third-party musical excellence (e.g. Moffatt’s guest spot on the Mogwai album, and their remix of David Holmes’ "The Holiday Girl"). And even if you don’t like the music, you can always read the ‘lyrics’, presented on the inner sleeves as if chapters of a book.

ARAB STRAP Mad For Sadness (Go! Beat)

"Mad For Sadness" is a recording of a 1998 London concert, and their first release for new taskmasters Go! Beat (rather an inappropriate choice of label, perhaps, as, whatever qualities Arab Strap’s music may possess, ‘go’ and ‘beat’ are not prominent amongst them). Aidan Moffat still mooches about like the winner of an all-Falkirk Charles Bukowski impersonators competition, a man mumbling through ever-deeper waters of alcohol-fuelled autodestructive relationships, all catalogued on record with a directness and candour that swings between voyeuristic and painful – the first line on the album is "I pulled the ex last night", and it’s pretty much downhill all the way from then on. It is unlikely that the toilet circuit will ever become flooded with a glut of Arab Strap copyist bands, put it that way.

Nevertheless, "Mad For Sadness" isn’t an entire hour of relentlessly downbeat doom and gloom, not quite. Played live, with more of a traditional band backing than the synthesised arrangements that predominate on record, these songs lose a few degrees’ worth of chilly detachment and, at times, verge on the human, if not humane, especially when the lighter counterpoint of Adele Bethel’s vocals pipe up on "Toy Fights" and "Afterwards". The real revelatory moments, however, are when Aidan slopes off for a beer and the band lock into a splenetic Slint/Mogwai-esque hurricane of noise, above which Malcolm Middleton demonstrates hitherto unexpected claims to the title of post-rock’s Hendrix, all sheets of guitar noise squeezed out through layers of feedback and effects – check out the middle section of "Girls Of Summer" for conclusive evidence.

Whether Arab Strap’s dalliance with The Man will make them household names yet is open to debate. The suspicion that they’ve already had their fifteen minutes’ worth with the use of their finest moment "The First Big Weekend" on a Guinness advert is hard to eradicate, especially as said crowd pleaser is conspicuously absent from this album. But their rebirth as post-rock monsters of sexual misery would be a trick worth seeing.

ARAB STRAP Elephant Shoe (Go! Beat)

Billed as the band's 'happy album', Arab Strap's third studio album offers no new tricks we haven't heard them before, and in some ways demonstrates even less than we've come to expect of the glum Falkirk duo. The cover art takes Aidan Moffat's girlfriend as its subject once again (photographed clothed, unlike the cover of "Philophobia" which featured a painting of her naked), and sports a "Parental Advisory Explicit Lyrics" sticker, even though said lyrics are no more explicit than before.

Perhaps said sticker should have read "Parental Advisory Tedious Music", because "Elephant Shoe" seems like a long way to spend an hour. The spark of originality that occasionally flickered behind Arab Strap's DIY slow motion sadcore (revisit the Guinness advert soundtrack "The First Big Weekend", or the Mogwai-like sheets of guitar noise that power the live version of "The Girls Of Summer" for further evidence) has been completely extinguished, and save the tinkly piano like that trickles through recent single "Cherubs" nothing of a musical nature lodges in the memory. What makes this even more of a shame is that Aidan Moffat is now writing some of the most direct and honest (even by Arab Strap's unblushing standards) lyrics of his career - check out the chorus of "Autumnul", with the line "We've already named the seeds I'll be sowing", or the entirety of "Pro-(Your)Life". Painful as it is to relate, "Elephant Shoe" (the title derived from a phrase that, when mouthed silently, can be lip-read as "I love you") makes for a more entertaining read than listen.

ARAB STRAP The Red Thread (Chemikal Underground)

Back at their spiritual home, The Delgados' Chemikal Underground, following a brief dalliance with major-label money that just had to end in tears, there's adequate evidence here to suggest that "The Red Thread" might be the best Arab Strap album yet, being the farthest they've travelled from their basic guitar and drum machine blueprint. Mogwai's Barry Burns trickles light-fingered piano lines over "Amor Veneris", cavernous echo surrounds the drum track on the harmonium-powered "Last Orders". "Screaming In The Trees" and "Haunt Me" feature string arrangements that, remarkably, approximate the fluttery sound of a Mellotron; the latter track is also punctuated by delicate, morse codes of guitar or keyboard, I can't decipher which. "Haunt Me" lurches in slow motion over a looped string sample, rather like The Delgados' "Knowing When To Run", whose tempo collapses woozily like ailing clockwork. Single "Love Detective" finds the band at possibly their most animated since their stunning 1996 debut "The First Big Weekend".

Which is all good stuff. But on top of this you have to put up with Aidan Moffat's stumbling mumblings. After four albums it still sounds like being cornered by the saloon-bar drunk who insists on regaling you with the most intimate details from his latest catalogue of romantic catastrophes. Once upon a time it was refreshingly different, daring even, these days it just seems to have curdled into something airless and repressive. It drags "The Red Thread" down, makes it sound like some bizarre amalgam of The Blue Nile and "Trainspotting" - marvellous artistry both, but not the kind to be seen in each other's company. If Moffat could actually write songs about some other subject and/or at least try to sing them rather than approximating a Falkirk Lou Reed confessing into his pint glass Arab Strap could become a great, or at least greater, band. In their present configuration they're just frustrating.

ARAB STRAP Monday At The Hug & Pint (Chemikal Underground)

mondayatthehugandpint.jpg (23701 bytes)Joy might not exactly have been unconfined at news of the release of "Monday At The Hug & Pint", Arab Strap's fifth studio long player. After all, does the world really need another album of a drunken Scotsman mumbling into his pint about failed relationships, disastrous sex and even worse drugs to the accompaniment of a faulty karaoke machine with its maudlin dial turned up to 11? Actually, yes it does, because against considerable odds "Monday At The Hug & Pint" is the band's finest achievement yet.

It's the crazed variety that makes it so. Opener "The Shy Retirer" is glorious Eurodisco seen through the foggy bottom of a pint pot, heaving with quotable quotes such as "You can be my Jenny Agutter/Swimming naked in a pond" and the utter poetry of "Something forged in a phone box but lost in a restaurant". A "Gimme Gimme Gimme" for acoustic guitar, drum machine and string quartet, it's one of those recently increasingly rare moments - like "The First Big Weekend", from way back when - that the whole Arab Strap concept appears to be a piercingly clearly good idea.

Is the Mike Mogis mentioned in the credits he of Lullaby For The Working Class? His presence might explain the drowsy Scottish-Americana of "Meanwhile, At The Bar, A Drunkard Muses". The big, brawling drum and guitar attack of "Fucking Little Bastards" has Mogwai's calling card all over it, and sure enough Barry Burns of that band is another of the album's auxiliary contributors. "Peep-Peep" calms proceedings, being a sombre, synthesised waltz, giving the punch-drunk, stunned listener a few precious moments to reflect that after years of, well, underachievement might be a little harsh, but of being utterly, contentedly themselves, now no corner of the sonic envelope remains unpushed.

The guitar figurines of "Flirt" could be Tortoise - although the clumping percussion most certainly could not - and, given a lusher string arrangement (and less of that club-footed percussion, again), "Who Named The Days?" could be Tindersticks, but in a good way! (And perhaps it's these differences that make it good.) The parenthetical "(Loch Leven Intro)" is - and this is some way beyond satire! - a duet for treated bagpipes and rainfall, elaborate, mysterious and evocative. "Loch Leven" proper begins with the pauper poetry of "The rain pissed down on Leven's shores/The same rain would rain on superstores/And set off car alarms in our street", surely cementing Aidan Moffat's position as barfly laureate.

"Glue" might appear to be more traditional Arab Strap fare, but even so that marks it out amongst this endless cavalcade of variety, rather than being used to pummel the listener mercilessly into submission over the space of an hour or so. "Act Of War" is more of a caress of a song than its title might suggest, laced with steel guitar and a deranged, clamouring "Life In A Glasshouse"-style jazz band crescendo, possibly the work of Scotland's very own Sun Ra, Bill Wells. "Serenade" highlights one of the album's major revelations - Aidan Moffat sings! Well, puts the effort in at least. But there's definitely more of a 'carrying a tune' vibe going on than I remember from past Arab Strap albums. "The Week Never Starts Around Here" is a big, dumb, chunky alt-country singalong, whilst closer "Pica Luna" is a drunken, hungover, morning-after invocation of the spirit of Lullaby For The Working Class' "Blanket Warm" - "Blanket Cold", perhaps.

Maybe the real strength of "Monday At The Hug & Pint" is that it appears to strive so very hard to not sound like Arab Strap. That, and the fact that the concept of a really good Arab Strap album would be a hard sell for most consumers, might limit its appeal. But, in the tradition of sex and drugs and something not quite like rock 'n' roll, this is the first Arab Strap album I would recommend to a friend. Listen and learn to love.