Adrian Moffat and Malcolm Middleton have made a career out of knocking their homeland, spinning gutter-mouthed mopers about what happens, or doesn’t, under the kilts. But licentious and grim as they have seemed, there’s also been a deep generosity to their ill tidings. The Arab Strap’s nasty tunes haven’t tried to rebut the pounding banality of the central Scottish ‘burbs – they’ve absorbed its blows and made them theirs. Rephrasing a sunnier maxim, they have been the shite they wished they didn’t have to see in this world.
Of course, it’s reasonable not to want your bands sounding like shite, especially when obvious edits have been close at hand. When, for example, the Strap moved from the post-rock glaze of The Red Thread (2001) to the pound-store gothika of Monday at the Hug & Pint, there was no longer any excuse for building the thing on flimsy drum-box detritus. I mean, leavening growly pub stomps with pseudo trip-hop is flat tacky – but, you see, so is every semi-detached in Falkirk, Scotland.
They’ve been heroes of the common, these two, making cheap swill taste like empathy, so it’s been damn concerning to hear Moffat and Middleton bandying about terms like “upbeat” in relation to their sixth proper LP. To hear them bandying anything, really. They’ve even ditched the sterile beats for an in-the-flesh kit. Don’t tell the lads stuck at home that it’s cool to mix Nick Cave with Portishead then leave them in the lurch with a real live drummer.
The first stretch of the The Last Romance is pocked with the problems of this abrupt tack. On opener “Stink,” the boys sound eager to prove that shifting to full-figured rock hasn’t cost them their seamy souls. Within the first couplet Moffat has already thrown all his broguey spittle into a mondo F-bomb, but the effort reeks of mannerism, an antidote to the horrific modern-rock drum fills churning at his feet (this is what they bagged the machine for?). “If There’s No Hope For Us” lightens up on the epic sweep, but Moffat and Middleton are still grinding, bullying us into considering them as something other than bullies.
Things improve considerably when the pair abandons the preening street-cred game; Moffat and Middleton seem finally to realize that if they’re going to make a love record they might as well not half-ass it. “Come Around and Love Me” opens with typical Strap snarling ennui – “Hurry and finish your unhealthy breakfast/ Then it’s straight back to bed” – but ultimately decides to keep the girl around. “Dream Sequence” provides the album’s squarest hook, a pretty little piano curl that’s all the spiffing Moffat’s dry growl needs. Here’s the proper romancing we’ve been promised, and it turns out the boys clean up nicely. They’re just better off unwashed.