Malcolm Middleton: Sleight of Heart

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Aidan Williamson

29th February 2008
At 12:51 GMT

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Let's start today with a simple exercise. Close your eyes and think of your favourite artist from the fair country of Switzerland, be they musician, poet, painter or architect.

Nothing? After nearly 200 years of peace, the Swiss enjoy a land of tranquillity, good for graveyard space, bad for the history curriculum and national art, for you see, a fundamental fact is that suffering and depression bring forth creativity. Need a counterpoint? Think of a Jewish artist, a German artist, an American artist, a Scottish artist.

To decry Malcolm Middleton as a mere miserablist as many quarters do, is to miss the point entirely. Want chuckles and laughter, go buy a Steps album, if you can avoid the obvious irony that most of them must be washed up, alcoholic wrecks of their former selves by now.

With "Sleight of Hand", ex-Arab Strapper Malcolm Middleton renders forth his soul with nine bleak, yet blackly comic dirges. True, only 6 are of his own volition (the album features cover versions of King Creosote's "Marguerita Red", Madonna's "Stay" and Jackson C. Frank's "Just Like Anything") and yet even on songs not from his own heart, he finds extraordinary depth of feeling, which, in a Madonna song must be as difficult as finding logic in a conversation between Donny Tourette and Johnny Rotten.

With his humble acoustic guitar and attached finger-picks as the backbone, he brings wit, humour and hope to the human condition. "Blue Plastic Bags" rues the anti-social culture where people retreat to their homes equipped with copious amounts of alcohol and read about how to improve their lives ('Just Sitting here, waiting to evolve.') Roping in members of Mogwai, Delgados, Arab Strap and Reindeer Section on tracks such as "Follow Robin Down" the scope is extended with the intensity of a litre of petrol being unloaded on a crackling open fire.

Fashioning himself as a Scottish Johnny Cash, Middleton manages the rare feat of capturing the soul, passion and grace of the revered American country star, whilst never being afraid of surrendering himself to the beauty of melody. Observe the seven-minute spectacle of "Love Comes in Waves", which begins as a man, stranded in his attic, lamenting the fleeting nature of the most hallowed of possessions before giving the song over to an internal battle as to whether it's something worth fighting for.

If you found the book of bunny suicides entertaining, consider this a shoe-in.

Rating:  8 / 10

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