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Arab Strap:: The Last Romance (Album Review)

While the biggest band of the mid-90s have been quite content to re-emerge this year with a record unthrillingly unswerving from their long-established template, aggrandizing their own idleness in the process, a number of the bands that emerged in that fertile era have suddenly shown a trifle more imagination. Hence, 2005’s seen a troubled Low rocketing away from their slowcore shackles, and given us the Stereophonics finally leaving the pub after all these years for the more exotic climes of ‘Dakota’. And now, in a manoeuvre even more unexpected than the aforementioned, it’s thrown up an Arab Strap album that, while unlikely to be mistaken for the new Rachel Stevens set by anyone at all, is the pair’s Outstanding Pop Statement. Honestly.

Clearly, working apart – an endeavour that’s borne most fruit on the ceaselessly amazing ‘Into The Woods’ – has done both Malcolm Middleton and Aidan Moffat a power of good. They’ve resumed their partnership suitably galvanised and, while the Strap hadn’t yet begun to sound tired as it is, there’s a lot more life to this than we’ve heard from them before. ‘The Last Romance’ is decidedly brisk, clocking in at around 36 minutes, but is filled with many of the most singalong tracks they’ve ever recorded – and, yes, Aidan really can sing these days, in something of a dark croon, admittedly, and perhaps a slightly acquired taste, but a real leap onwards from the bleak beat poetry of previous recordings. It also includes a number of songs that wouldn’t sound out of place in today’s indie-friendlier fab 40, such as the recent ‘Dream Sequence’ single, with its lovely piano cascades, or ‘(If There’s) No Hope For Us’, which bears an uncommon resemblance to the Kaiser Chiefs’ ‘Modern Way’ and is one of the first of their numbers that could ever finds itself in the same sentence as the words “naggingly infectious” without that being a reference to thrush or somesuch.

Most significantly of all, perhaps, is the strong female presence on this album. It’s entirely explicit on the aforementioned ‘…No Hope…’ and ‘Come Round And Love Me’ with their inclusion of infuriatingly uncredited (on PlayLouder’s copy, at least) guest vocals, but, furthermore, after years of thwarted relationships it finally sounds in many cases here as if Moffat has turned a corner; ‘Stink’ admits to an unwillingness to settle for a seamier way of life in the long run, while ‘Fine Tuning’ is a touching take on a very committed coupling, with even parenthood being very seriously considered. Standout track ‘Speed-Date’, meanwhile, is joyously, unanticipatedly dismissive of swinging, cheap sex and familiar grubbiness in favour of – blimey! – a sense-of-wonder-filled love of monogamy. There’s still plenty to appeal to hardcore Strapophiles, of course, like the blurrily avant-garde stylings of ‘Confessions Of A Big Brother’ and the uniquely dazzling accordion-and-sung and spoken-vocals-fest that is ‘Chat In Amsterdam, Winter 2003’, but there’s no denying the more fundamental impact of this record: with ‘The Last Romance’, a whole lot of people are at last going to fall in love with Arab Strap for the very first time.
(Iain Moffat)