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Malcolm Middleton - Sleight of Heart

  by John Clarkson

published: 16 / 2 / 2008

Malcolm Middleton - Sleight of Heart
Label: Full Time Hobby
Format: CD


Fine largely acoustic fourth solo album from former Arab Strap guitarist and Scots melancholist, Malcolm Middleton

At an initial glance Malcolm Middleton’s new solo album, ‘Sleight of Heart’, looks simply like a bookend or an appendage to his critically acclaimed album from last year, ‘A Brighter Beat’. There are six songs on it written during the sessions for ‘A Brighter Beat’ but which were not used and also three covers. ‘Sleight of Heart’, which is the former Arab Strap guitarist’s fourth solo album, is, however, at least in some ways a very different work from ‘A Brighter Beat’. While ‘A Brighter Beat’ toyed with electronica and was a noisy pop record that tipped occasionally into psychobilly, ‘Sleight of Hand’, the sessions for which were recorded at a later time, is a much quieter offering, played largely on acoustic rather than electric guitars, and owing a seeming debt at points to the likes of the Field Mice and Felt. Much has been made in the press, and often by the slyly humorous Middleton himself, of his miserablism and self-deprecating wit, and ‘Sleight of Heart’ once again lyrically finds him on familiar turf and in turmoil with himself. The opening ‘A Week Off’ begins with fluttering guitars, and , then under the auspices of Middleton’s fine recording band, which includes Mogwai’s Barry Burns on piano, the Delgadoes Paul Savage on drums, Arab Strap bassist Stevie Jones, and the Reindeer Section’s Jenny Reeve on backing vocals, is worked up into a stop-starting waltzing jig. It has Middleton lambasting himself as he suffers another dose of writer’s block and an inability to write. “I’ll write a good song/Just give me more time/It’s easy hating yourself/It’s hard making it rhyme”, he sings in his thick Falkirk brogue. The Pat Metheny-style bittersweet acoustic jazz of ‘Total Belief’, which he plays unaccompanied and without the band is similarly diggingly humorous. On it he takes this concept of self-failure further, contemplating this time his “unworthiness”. “When things go right they’re rubbish/because I am too close to the flame”, he admits knowingly. Unable to sleep and thinking of going on pills, he tries in what becomes a blackly comic succession of errors to overcome and to put to death any negative feelings towards himself, only to end up at each point beating himself up all over again. The three covers are the relatively obscure King Creosote’s ‘Marguerita Red’ and Jackson C. Frank’s ‘Just Like Anything’, and Madonna’s much better-known ‘Stay’. With the latter, he takes the pop diva’s cooing anthem, and then reworks it into a tormented and achingly vulnerable torch ballad. For all his self-flagellation and doubt, one gets the impression, however, that Malcolm Middleton actually quite likes human fallibility, both within himself and others. The downbeat melodic pop of ‘Blue Plastic Bags’ pays tribute to Britain’s nation of behind-closed-curtains drinkers (“The whole world is going mad for plastic bags/Six bottles of Stella, Jacob’s Creek and twenty fags/You know there is no shame because we’re all doing the same/Staying in is the new going out”). On the rustic folk of ‘Follow Robin Down’ he meanwhile encourages an equally depressed friend to take comfort in the music of his fellow melancholist, Sophia’s Robin Proper-Sheppard (“If you’re lost follow Robin down to the darkness where he hangs around/You can hear him sing his songs/How he bounced off women/Where it all went wrong”). Near the end of the record there comes ‘Love Comes in Waves’, a seven minute slice of epic indie pop. “Love comes in waves/I want you to love me as much as I love you”, Middleton tells his lover near the beginning. “And you do/then you don’t/ then you do/then you don’t...” Of course the romance continues to go inevitably horribly wrong. The music soars and weaves its way ever upwards, as Middleton describes his girlfriend growing still colder with him and the relationship burning out. “I want you to love me as much I love you” a gutted Middleton laments again at the end, before adding with a matter-of-factness that still can’t nevertheless conceal his hurt, “But you don’t.” The song then concludes in a stunning series of vocal harmonies between himself and the airy-voiced Reeve. It is in his ten year career possibly his finest moment yet. ‘Sleight of Hand’ moves beyond first appearances and, far from being a collection of cast-offs, offers both a change and also thankfully more of the same from this most humane of singer songwriters.

Track Listing:-
1 Week Off
2 Blue Plastic Bags
3 Total Belief
4 Just Like Anything
5 Follow Robin Down
6 Stay
7 Marguerita Red
8 Love Comes in Waves
9 Hey You

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Interview (2009)
Malcolm Middleton - Interview
Former Arab Strap guitarist Malcolm Middleton talks to John Clarkson about his just released fifth solo album, 'Waxing Gibbous', and why this will be the last record under his own name for the immediate future
Interview (2007)

live reviews

Union Chapel, London, 2/4/2008
Malcolm Middleton - Union Chapel, London, 2/4/2008
In London's spectacular Union Chapel venue, Chris O' Toole sees Scottish singer-songwriter Malcolm Middleton perform a witty and polished, but surprisingly subdued concert
Liquid Room, Edinburgh, 6/12/2007
Queens Hall, Edinburgh, 13/1/2007
Dingwalls, London, 20/2/2007


Malcolm Middleton (2010)
Malcolm Middleton - Malcolm Middleton
Anna Gudaniec photographs Scottish singer-songwriter and former Arab Strap guitarist Malcolm Middleton at an acoustic solo at the Borderline in London

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