In 2003, some people released some records. The reasons for such admittedly unorthodox behaviour remain vague and elusive; perhaps it was ritualistic – an offering to their heathen gods – although I’m rather taken with the theory that it was simply a phase, like that year we all got drunk and fell into the river.
Whatever the motives, these recordings stand as an important testimony of what life was like all this time ago; when it comes to understanding 2003, the occasional daguerreotype or that silent and grainy monochrome footage of folk in top hats that we’ve all seen on history documentaries – they only take us so far. And now that the (primitive) architecture of this era has all crumbled to dust, and no written record has survived, it’s perhaps this strange habit of performing, recording then releasing music that tells us the most. Who knows – maybe the denizens of 2003 were actually quite like us?
Also: this look back at a particular year – it’ll be a three-parter. Because otherwise the word count will grow stupid. If I haven’t mentioned your favourite album of 2003 in the below: worry not, it’s coming. Unless it’s Magic And Medicine by The Coral – which turns all decent-thinking people into a Linda Blair / The Exorcist tribute act.
There’s a sly, playful dig at Belle And Sebastian on the front cover of Arab Strap’s Monday at the Hug & Pint. The Trevor Horn-produced Dear Catastrophe Waitress – the sixth Belle And Sebastian LP – is perhaps too consciously fey for my tastes, the pop retro and American in flavour, the slick production not especially complimentary. Monday at the Hug & Pint meanwhile; the font, the retro, trendy feel of photograph – they’re straight from the Stuart Murdoch school of album design. It’s subtle detail such as this that makes being a record geek so enjoyable.
More importantly, this was the moment that Aidan Moffat’s lyrical alacrity really hit me (and thence forced me to study the back catalogue in far greater detail). It’s the mundanity of these words that accentuates the narrative; a heartbreaking quality inherent to practically every single Arab Strap release. And whether it’s the sympathetic production, or the simple fact that the vocals are higher in the mix than usual (Scottish accents are very hard to decipher when mumbled or hurried – there’s a woman where I work whose speech patterns are so rushed and sticky, I’ve needed someone to translate her words of wisdom for the last four years), the lustre of this phraseology is resplendent. ‘I know I’m always moaning, but you jump-start my serotonin’ Moffat intones on ‘The Shy Retirer’ – that line alone is worth the price of entry. A very Central Belt type of record, if you’re up to speed on your Scottish geopolitics.
Two début albums, indelibly linked in my memory (rightly or wrongly). Fever To Tell by Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Keep On Your Mean Side by The Kills. Not implicitly similar, at least beyond the punchy heat of the respective vocals. Think I bought these both on the same, Spring day – that might explain the association. That, and the fact that to truly appreciate, you have to overlook the hype associated with both records; I know that ‘Maps’ from Fever To Tell is ubiquitous even beyond indie circles, yet its such a sultry record, it still gives me goose pimples all these years later.
I have to confess that my heart also skipped a beat upon first hearing No Cities Left by The Dears. Stylistically, it’s one of the most derivative albums that comes to mind, the annunciation of Murray Lightburn’s vocals a homage to the Damon Albarn of a 1996 vintage, the guitar licks plucked and plundered from every English indie-pop record released between 1986 and the turn of the century (including all those albums Bernard Butler ever played on). It’s not so much Anglophilic as Anglophonic; selections from a template pulled together in LP format, with a maple leaf stamped on top.
But oh! – what a template. And what an execution; No Cities Left is a genuinely thrilling voyage through indie disco trope; should you be in the business of distilling this genre of sound into its base elements, this record has every single one embedded in its DNA. Pop music as something dramatic, passionate, playfully urgent. Riffs that swagger, drip honey, ooze sex appeal. I was talking to a fellow music blogger And Before The First Kiss about the vitality of sound, in the bar, just the other day, and the topic of ‘Lost In The Plot’ arose. And as well as spending far too much of our pocket money on vinyl – having a record store in a bar really is a work of evil genius – we both admitted to swooning over this track with a fiercely burning intensity. It’s not only the highlight of this album; it’s a highlight of the year itself. A redefinition of evocation. A track that’s all about the whoosh – and a sense of wonderment that remains long after we’ve hit the run-out groove.
Arab Strap / The Shy Retirer
The Dears / Lost In The Plot