ARAB STRAP with ROYAL CITY at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Friday (April 13). $15. 416-532-1598. Rating: NNNNN
outside of icelandic oddballs
Sigur Rós, Scottish sad sacks Arab Strap are the least likely group to be swept up by a major label and repositioned for pop glory.
Who knows what a major label hoped to get out of Malcolm Middleton's brooding guitar melodies and vocalist Aidan Moffatt's grim observations about sex, breakups, masturbation and endless pints.
But don't underestimate the fantasies of the big labels. Sigur Rós have just signed on with MCA, and for the blink of an eye, Arab Strap were part of the Polygram empire. That the relationship ended in tears surprised no one, not even the members of the band.
Arab Strap tried their best to make it work, spending loads of cash on the epic but still depressing Elephant Shoe album. Too bad no one heard it, including fans.
"I don't know why they signed us, to be honest," brays Middleton from Glasgow. "I think they thought they were getting something else, but they got us sad fucks instead. We were happy to take their money, though, and they're not getting it back, so fuck 'em."
Now back with their old label, Chemikal Underground, Arab Strap have shelved their pop-star aspirations and returned with another sad rock classic. The just-released disc, The Red Thread, differs little from the familiar Arab Strap formula of brooding soundscapes and slurred lyrics, at least until the second-last track on the album.
Haunt Me swoops in with a wash of strings and crashing cymbals -- out of character for a group that is usually content with simply reworking the same depressing themes over and over again.
"We try to be imaginative and explore different styles of music, but it always ends up sounding like Arab Strap," Middleton counters. "I've thought about trying to write more upbeat songs, but Aidan would probably just sing about shagging anyway, so what's the point?
"The strings were just a joke. There's a couple of live cellos, but for most of it, we stole Belle & Sebastian's Mellotron and hijacked it for a week. They were in the studio next door, so we went through in the middle of the night and brought it across. For stolen property, it sounds great."
Languishing in label limbo can have its costs, though, and Middleton openly admits that many people thought Arab Strap were finished.
To remind fans that they're back from the dead, the duo took their twisted humour to the extreme and set up a phone-sex line to promote their Love Detective single. Coming from a couple of beardos from rural Scotland, the results were predictably disturbing.
"We printed up adverts that just had a phone number," Middleton laughs. "You called the line and heard Aidan's heavy breathing, and him telling people to buy our records and see us live in his sexiest voice."
So not much of an erotic appeal then?
"What are you talking about?" he snorts back. "'Course it's erotic. It's Aidan. He's the bloody Scottish Elvis."