Saturday, May 26, 2012

Human Don't Be Angry: Arab Strap's Malcolm Middleton Charms With New Album (A Review)

You would never guess this was half of the duo that gave us "The First Big Weekend" and "Packs of Three".

No, this record is a pleasant surprise from Mr. Malcolm Middleton.

With help from Paul Savage, one-time drummer for The Delgados, Middleton has brought forth a strange but wondrous beast of a record. The self-titled effort from Human Don't Be Angry is a mix of instrumentals and vocal pieces, each anchored by Middleton's inventive, sometimes Bill Nelson-like guitar figures.

Keyboards, percolating drum ideas (both drum programming from Savage and live drums from Arab Strap mate Aidan Moffat are featured), and sinewy guitar work -- this is a pleasure for both casual fans and those who've always wanted to hear this guy do something a bit less...morose.

After the two-pronged instrumental lead-in of "The Missing Plutonium" and "H.D.B.A. Theme", Middleton starts the vocal work off with "First Person Singular, Present Tense" which is, perhaps as expected, a sort of upbeat take on old Strap numbers. There's a hint of Badly Drawn Boy here as well.

Still, Middleton has a way to modulate his tone a bit; he's not quite as emotional in his delivery as Damon Gough can be. But the multitracked vocals and Durutti Column-like shuffle of the cut are very affecting. Add in a SFA-style keyboard wail near the end of the cut and you've got a solid single here.

"After The Pleasuredome" is like Knoplfer on downers, it's "Brothers in Arms" as re-imagined by Barry Adamson. I'm being fanciful but the instrumental is the sound of the comedown, the guitar lines here peeling away in sad, slow runs, or sharing space with the keyboard moments.

"Monologue: River" with its sparkling keyboard figures, rolling drums, and calls to "roll down the river" is another languid, nearly Richard Thompson-like tune. It's sad, in a general way, but it's not morose like some of that Arab Strap stuff can be. No, it's pastoral, in a sense, and there's an echo of Van Morrison here -- 1980s Van the Man.

The influence of Vini Reilly and The Durutti Column is back on the galloping "Jaded" where the guitar and keyboards echo Arab Strap -- a tiny bit -- but also those Factory mainstays.

The sample-friendly "1985" comes next. The looping hook, the piano-and-keyboard lines, the general-but-slight upbeat vibe to the cut -- these all charm a listen and I couldn't help but think of The Blue Nile when playing this one. Scotland produces the best music sometimes!

"Askiipio" comes in on a wave of keyboards and guitar notes. Middleton's voice is a touch Ian Curtis here -- back in the mix, drum machine thumping near him. The song is intimate and direct, the production by Paul Savage inventive and retro all at once. A bell-like keyboard line comes in and the guitar stretches out into a moment or two of Fripp-like intensity. As Middleton sings "I'm coming your way", it sounds like a threat and a promise. The guitars and keyboards here echo so many things -- Cocteau Twins, Echo and the Bunnymen a bit -- but the end result is, perhaps, the strange, sad, and soaring highlight of the record.

Album closer "Getting Better (At Feeling Like Shit)" is -- great title aside -- a gentle nod to the old Arab Strap stuff and another thing entirely. It's a nearly blues-y workout with a finger-snap-like percussive sample in the background. Knopfler looms over this cut, from when Dire Straits were not so shit and not so dad rock.

The final cut unfurls, an organ-like keyboard lulls a listener into a sense of comfort and the album ends.

Human Don't Be Angry is both a nod to the past and a look forward. Malcolm Middleton has created an intimate album that doesn't feel too heavy. It's its own genre. It's both lo-fi and well produced. The record charms, soothes, and stirs the heart.

While not entirely the clean break from the Arab Strap days that that jaunty cover would imply, Human Don't Be Angry by Malcolm Middleton works as a standalone record that's sure to please Strap fans and newer listeners.

Follow Malcolm Middleton on his website:

And on the Chemikal Underground label: