Arab Strap, Dot Allison: Islington Union Chapel, London

Smitten souls

ROCK’S REPUTATION as Satan’s music of choice unsurprisingly militates against too many gigs in churches. Here, though, is a choice combination of smitten Scottish souls more than worthy of the devotional setting.

Not that either party brings much in the way of charisma to the run-down splendour of Union Chapel. Dot Allison is the epitome of world-weary cool, her fragile blonde good looks housing a voice that’s narrow but laden with emotional candour. Three years after surviving both a near-fatal car accident and the break-up of the much touted but chronically under-achieving post-rave trio One Dove, she seems amply qualified to sing the songs of the vanquished, and while her set’s occasional uptempo selections jar awkwardly, the spectral swirl of ‘Tomorrow Never Comes’ confirms Allison as an authentic torch-bearer for the romantically bereft.

An apt support for Arab Strap, then, whose caustic treatises on love and all its messy ways tap levels of honesty uncommon for the trivial realm of pop. “I wish it was someone else’s blood on the johnny,” sings Aidan Moffat in his wracked, dyspeptic croon. The previous song had been about abortion. Always looking on the shite side of life, Arab Strap are, as their 1998 album proclaimed, Mad for Sadness, and the combination of Moffat’s slurred entreaties to fallible friends with guitarist Malcolm Middleton’s desolately beautiful tunes makes for irresistible drama. The potent bass and drums embellishments of Gary Miller and David Gow ensure that funereal, barely alive songs like ‘Aries the Ram’ never waver from their preordained path, straight to the gut.

This may not sound much like entertainment, but Arab Strap live are a transfixing, if uncomfortable, experience, the material’s intensity leavened by the fact that the wine-swigging, lovably unkempt Moffat looks like he’s just wandered in from losing a week’s wages at the bookies.

It’s hard to think of a band that provokes stronger feelings of empathy, for though steeped in urban Scottish vernacular, Moffat’s tales of sexual misadventure are patently universal.

© Keith CameronThe Guardian, 25 September 1999

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