When Glasgow’s Arab Strap first presented itself to the indie world with 1996’s The Week Never Starts Round Here, by all accounts the duo was a diamond in the rough. On their debut, vocalist Aidan Moffat’s sing-speak ranges from the sound of a drunk dialer to a listless and hungover loafer the day after. By no means is that meant to be disparaging, part of the pair’s charm is their ability to sound so candid. Extensive tales of getting by on liquor and adequate but unsatisfying sex became the Arab Strap’s stock in trade and it all started here.
The opening line of “A General Plea to a Girlfriend” speaks to Moffat’s take on himself – “I can’t make boasts about my body/The workmanship is somewhat shoddy” – and that’s pretty representative of Moffat’s posture on The Week. He doesn’t see much to be proud of in himself or most of the lovers and friends around him. The song features nothing more than Moffat’s voice, a tambourine and a drum – I’m assuming it’s a drum; it could just as easily be someone pounding on a suitcase. The unfussiness serves to underscore the album’s bare-bones production.
More so than on any of their future albums, Arab Strap doesn’t stray too far from ’90s American indie’s obsession with lo-fi. Think of the shambolic performances of early Pavement, Sebadoh and Guided by Voices and you won’t be too far off the mark. Still, Strap pulls enough colorful rabbits out of their hat to be pinned down to easy comparisons. “The Clearing” features the unlikely pairing of massive overdriven drums and Moffat’s spoken verses detailing the complications with what is presumably an ex-lover. Underneath, instrumentalist Malcolm Middleton lays down some pleasant, subdued guitar work.
On certain tracks, such as “Gourmet,” the duo boasts the kind of thick bass sound found on Unwound records, while “The First Big Weekend” is accompanied by drum machine handclaps. “Phone Me Tonight’s” coarse cello also keeps things interesting, even if the song’s tone doesn’t deviate from the album’s well-worn glumness. All this to say, Middleton’s arrangements can be effective, but the majority of the time the scenery is so understated you begin to wonder how sober the duo even was when they decided the record was finished. Still, all of the basic tenets that make Arab Strap great are here to some degree. The album has more enough bright spots to keep it from being merely a curio for those wondering what the duo’s humble beginnings looked like; the songs themselves just tend to veer towards the underdeveloped.
Chemikal Underground’s reissue includes a second disc, which features the band’s first live performance as well their first Peel Session in March 1997. These recordings are a welcome addition to the album, showcasing The Week material fleshed out with a full band. The proper album itself offers an interesting look at what Arab Strap was capable of even when they were just turning in rough drafts. There’s plenty to enjoy amidst the out of tune guitars and screeching cellos. Even when things plod along rather slowly – take the seven-minute closer “Deeper” – this is still Arab Strap at their most uncompromising.
Sebadoh – Bubble and Scrape
American Music Club – Mercury
Smog – Wild Love