Sleight of Heart
(Full Time Hobby; 2008)
By Peter Hepburn | 1 April 2008
I first heard Malcolm Middleton’s A Brighter Beat (2007) while driving through rural Wisconsin on or about December 16th, 2007. The date sticks out because, had it been a month or two earlier, the album almost certainly would have made my year-end list. It is a funny, lovely, often manic and occasionally overwrought chunk of lovelorn, self-hating rock songwriting. And yet somehow, despite being a longtime fan of Middleton’s former band, the Scottish miserablist duo Arab Strap, I somehow slept on the disc entirely. At least until late December.
No such fate will befall Middleton’s new effort, Sleight of Heart, a mini-album meant to capitalize on the (however unlikely) success of Beat in the UK. I only wish that the album, composed of six originals and three covers spanning a half hour, were of the same caliber as its predecessor. Sleight is a pleasant listen, and a few of the originals would have fit well on Beat, but there’s something about the slightness of the disc that leaves one wanting more. Beat was effective in part because it was so over-the-top and Middleton so hopelessly dramatic and endearing. Here, often stripped down to an acoustic set-up and working with other people’s material he flounders a bit.
Part of the problem is the choice of covers. While he does a great job with King Creosote’s rollicking “Marguerita Red,” his takes on Madonna and Jackson C. Frank are less impressive. Frank’s “Just Like Anything” is sort of an obvious choice – a tip of the cap from one depressive to another – but Middleton lacks Frank’s fine vocals and the whole thing comes off as a bit ham-handed (this is not an uncommon problem with Frank covers; Nick Drake could manage them, but few others). The cover of Madonna’s “Stay” is less expected, but Middleton gives it the standard look-at-the-sad-core-of-this-peppy-pop-song treatment. One almost wishes he’d gone the other way with it, and upped the pace as he did a few times on Beat.
The originals, for their part, are pretty solid. The three opening tracks prove, once again, that Middleton can write a great pop song and combine sincerity with self-deprecating humor better than most. “Blue Plastic Bags” would have worked well on Beat, and the self-lacerating, lovely “Total Belief” works better than the acoustic numbers he tried on that album. “Follow Robin Down” is even better, putting his more bombastic side into action to good results. The seven-minute “Love Comes in Waves” can wear a bit, but the slow build works well and the vocal harmonies toward the end are lovely.
This year looks to be a busy one from the ex-Arab Strap camp. Aidan Moffat, the band’s singer, has a bizarre spoken word record out shortly and a proper rock record slated for later in the year; there’s every reason to suspect that Middleton might drop another LP in ’08. Sleight is a stopgap, and a pretty good one at that. It doesn’t live up to the promise of Beat, but that’s probably not a fair measure. Middleton’s got our attention now, so lets hope he can capitalize on that with something a bit more substantial than this.