Wednesday, March 21, 2001

Down-tempo and dirty

Posted By on Wed, Mar 21, 2001 at 12:00 AM

Arab Strap whisks bare the bedroom whispers usually softened by metaphor when in song form. The only things softened in The Red Thread are Aidan Moffatt’s tone of voice and the guitar plucks and strums of Malcolm Middleton. Even more sparse and breathy than previous works, the exaggerated subtlety downplays the blatancy of the lyrics just enough to avoid cringing and inspire contemplation. It makes you wonder what’s hidden beneath the scratch marks in the liner notes between such obviousness as “we’ll get pissed just to watch the telly/I’ll get worked up when you flash your belly.” In The Red Thread, the Scottish duo’s fifth full-length, the message seems more direct, the accompaniment more bare-bones, but the sex itself becomes a metaphor for something else — the intertwining and separation of love and a fuck, jealousy and commitment, a soul mate and a booty call. There’s a belief in Eastern theology that an invisible red thread links soul mates through time. The album’s title also points to the G-force of a collapsing heart when you spot a piece of red thread from a former lover’s coat on your couch. And how pathetic and beautiful it is that you recognize the thread — and then scrutinize over it. Is it exactly the same color? Or was the coat a little more blue-red?

By the time you get to track six, “Love Detective,” a spoken-word hysteria hell, you’re a goner. For fuck’s sake, I’m a sucker for a sexy accent and “no-he-didn’t!” honesty.

But if you listen to the rest of the disc as a whole, you’ll register the simplicity of an acoustic guitar, the lushness of sweeping strings, the cheesiness of fake drums, the musk of a hoarse vocal; after the lyrical shock wears off, the musical deliberateness is quite pure.

It’s the delicateness of what one might call post-folk — down-tempo, minimalist, quiet, pretty music; music that makes you feel warm, soft, mushy, crushed, moved, important, devastated, renewed and relieved all at the same time. The physical playing of the instruments adds to the sensuality. String scratches are amplified, becoming a part of the melody as fingers travel up and down the guitar’s neck.

The Red Thread weaves a tired sleepless infatuation, not wanting to close your eyes, afraid you might miss something. Afraid you’ll wake up. It’s the point when you’re too tired to talk, argue, give up, remember details. Thoughts just come out, thoughts that never get to see the light of day, thoughts that belong in well-curtained bedrooms, between thick walls and dreams. These ideas barely escape Moffatt’s lips, curling Scottish-flavored intonations, dirty and embarrassed like yellow smoke.

They’re quiet, and married to beautiful expansive strings, crashing cymbals, outer-space sound waves and Middleton’s sparse guitar, but they hit you like a shift in your equilibrium — like noticing the change in the smell of your room after he leaves in the morning. You have to grab hold of the bass line to keep your balance.

The entire album develops the rationale introduced in the band’s past work, with topics such as the age-old “Let’s just never get out of bed” or “It’s too hot for pajamas.” This time, though, we’re beyond the flirtation period. Now it’s time to get down to business.

Melissa Giannini is the Metro Times staff music writer. E-mail her at


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