After the demise of Arab Strap, Malcolm Middleton went mental. He released two albums of super hi-energy, punky stuff that had brilliant lyrics and one of the best Christmas singles I’ve ever heard. I think Aidan Moffitt must have kept him on Thorazine or something, because while Arab Strap specialized in spacious first gear melancholia, Middleton’s solo albums have been the exact opposite.
I have heard nothing from either of them for a while (musically, I’m not mates with them or anything) and was as pleased as pleased can be when I got sent this. The cover was a kind of pastiche of some seventies board game and the title is great so my expectations were high. Imagine my surprise then to hear that Middleton has metamorphosised somewhat to create an album that is nothing like any pf his previous two albums. It’s not overtly Arab Strap-py either because there are very few vocals, but it’s definitely a lot slower and sadder than I was expecting.
The opening few tracks sort of sound like a cross between the soundtrack for a spy film and an advert for “Visit Scotland” featuring vibraphones, electric guitars, real and programmed drums and a much reduced pace. I like the melodies but without Middleton’s vocals it doesn’t seem to reach the heights that previous albums have. The first point where I really started to enjoy myself was on “Monologue:River” which is a very simple electric guitar riff and piano thing that turns into a Dad-rock epic with the addition of a rolling Toms section and multi-tracked “Whoahs” that is both as cheesy as fuck and also strangely emotional. It’s this track that made me think of a Visit Scotland campaign. It also made me think of Malcolm playing the solo on a clifftop with the wind blowing through his …uh… skinhead.
The other influence that comes to mind on this album is Air. I think it’s the combinations of programmed drums and real instruments and vocals, plus Air always had an eye for beautiful arrangements. This is at its most apparent on “Jaded” which is another pleasant stroll through sunny vibraphones and spacious guitar lines, that manages to make you feel like you’re on a train. Not a bad train like in London but a nice one going across the Forth bridge on Scotland’s sunny day.
The most surprising point is a sort of Phillip Glass type thing where he plays a bit of a wanky guitar solo over a sampled vocal “Ha” that he multi tracks to create said Glass-iness. I really don’t know how I feel about this tune. It’s ludicrously Dad rock (with all the cheese that implies) with more than a hint of Sigur Ros but also features booming 4/4 kick, crowd “Heys !” and claps and distorted synth stabs that make me behave like a Higgs-Boson. I love it and hate it simultaneously which is how I also feel about “Askliipio”. It’s a beautiful song but within the first four bars I had turned it into “Knocking On Heavens Door”. And that’s because it bears a similarity. Unlike a lot of people, you know with Malcolm that there is no attempt to rip anyone off. It’s just an unfortunate accident and he manages to completely overcome this initial “Eeeew” moment with some beautiful spectral guitar work and some of the most bizarre lyrics he’s ever worked on :
“I’m coming your way ….with an attack on your fingers….don’t think that by the end of today you’ll have any digit free….I’ll give you a dead eel for Christmas….freaky memories survive….”
So, I’ve listened to this album three times this week and I’m still not sure what to make of it. Is it a guilty pleasure on account of being too Dadrock ? Is it a nod to Arab Strap’s past ? Is Malcolm alright ? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions and while this album may not be as instantly appealing as his others, neither is it as murk-bound as the Arab Strap albums. It seems that Mr. Middleton is making music for himself at his own pace with his own ideas and his own destination in mind. Imagine that.