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Music Reviews

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Fat Possum
Malcolm Middleton
A Brighter Beat
Full Time Hobby

Rating: 7.8/10 ?

September 4, 2007
So what should listeners expect when Malcolm Middleton, recently retired guitarist and co-miserabilist of the foul-mouthed duo Arab Strap, delivers an album entitled A Brighter Beat? Arab Strap's parting statement, The Last Romance, depicted multi-instrumentalist Middleton and vocalist Aidan Moffat retiring with the upbeat epilogue of "There Is No Ending." This culminating moment was a difficult one for those nestled in the comfort of a decade of Middleton and Moffat's long spoken-sung words of melancholy; it was also uplifting for those who awoke with the pair to realize that they too had finally seen the light of day.

A Brighter Beat, the follow-up to the Middleton's 2005 solo outing, Into The Woods, appears to be a clear continuation of the lingering Arab Strap mindset. The less-onerous title and the overtly optimistic cover-art (of a balloon drawn face nearly fixed into a smile, peeking out of the top of a bedcover) perhaps signals the arrival of a new Middleton. But don't let the signs mislead you; Middleton is in top form as his old self, meaning his songs are made up of the stuff of human relationships, or more precisely, the bonds that make us human. The album's opener, "We're All Going to Die," is a reminder that everlasting human connections are also the ones that leaves us most vulnerable. This realization is humbling, and although the songwriter has never been afraid to spill himself onto a song, here he makes the process more inclusive--something akin to group therapy for aging hipsters.

In most cases, listeners are able to characterize Middleton's solo material as upbeat music for sad people. "Fight Like the Night" is a prime example of what Middleton can do with a melody, a verse, and an appropriate niche. With monster riffs pulled straight out of the 1980s, ethereal female vocals, and down-to-earth like lyrics ("You can be my hero/ By not letting me down/ Not letting me down again/ And being around"), which are all set off by Middleton's deep Scottish brogue, "Fight Like the Night" welcomes itself as a grandly conceived original statement.

The title track is a perfect example of Middleton's seasoned upbeat, self-depricating charm. It features a guitar line meant for traveling, no less lively than a Widespread Panic jam, but with one exception: the lyrics are less about the singer's travels than they are about his departed lover's. "Now you've gone and left me/ And there's nothing here/ But dinner in my pocket/ And a fridge full of beer," Middleton sings in front of the jam-heavy rolling slideshow.

Much of A Brighter Beat is contradictory in nature. The album tracks often feature conflicting lyrical and melodic impulses. The most endearing track on the album is "Fuck It, I Love You," a minor scale composition made to document the singer's inner conflict. The song acts as an open-ended letter to a now-distant lover, one that shows discomfort on Middleton's part, but that tension makes it all the more sincere. He pleads "When are you coming home?/ When are you coming home?" in the midst of a nearly monotonous verse. And this is coming from a singer who on his last album lamented his broken heart while recognizing that without it, he would have nothing to sing about.

Middleton's most recent take on life is not quite as steeped in desperation as his previous efforts, and as such A Brighter Beat is revealing to his growth as a songwriter. He does fall back into old habits with "Four Cigarettes," a harrowing view of a relationship coming to an inevitable end; for a brief moment or two, time flits by, but Middleton is able to strike a balance that plays up the best of both Arab Strap worlds. The barrom bastards' faithfuls will find that with A Brighter Beat the intimacy is real, the sounds are soothing, and the merging of the two is complex--always reassuring.

Reviewed by Patrick Gill
In in a state of suspended adolescence, Patrick Gill can be found hiding away in northwest Ohio, where he spends most of his time rediscovering shoegaze, noise pop, britpop, slowcore, sadcore, lo-fi, neo-psychedelia, post-rock, trad rock, and trip-hop music. In his spare time he teaches college English.

See other reviews by Patrick Gill



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