Over 10 years, Mogwai and Arab Strap have painted themselves into sonic corners, and they both seem to have chosen the decade mark to tiptoe toward previously uncharted floor space. Neither Mr. Beast nor The Last Romance mark massive changes for the culty Scottish bands, but even small shifts can seem remarkable after long stints in one place—it's like a mountain moving an inch. For Arab Strap, 2006 brings a slight move away from the dour depression that's been its stock in trade; for Mogwai, it's all about moving further from the quiet-loud-quiet-louder dynamic that provided fodder for a dozen imitators.
Arab Strap's dark, funny, miserable, and—gasp—catchy The Last Romance sounds like the album Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton wouldn't let themselves make in the past, but finally relented to. Their slight concessions to (barely) brighter moods suit their wicked outlook, allowing the grimy underside a little light to shine in. Which isn't to say these are all-new times: The disc still starts with the lyric "Burn these sheets that we've just fucked in," and there's plenty of Trainspotting-like seedy underbelly, like the spoken-sung "Chat In Amsterdam, Winter 2003" and the spare "Fine Tuning." But elsewhere, Arab Strap ups the tempos, adds a bit of melody, and even dares to write an occasional song that doesn't end naked and ashamed: "Don't Ask Me To Dance," with its shuffling beat and brooding keyboards, sounds like early New Order, and "Come Round And Love Me" is as close to a love song as Arab Strap will ever get. And it's great, like pretty much all of The Last Romance.
Mogwai, on the other hand, seems to desire change, but lacks a clear direction. Mr. Beast wants to rock, but shies from the dynamic obviousness of the band's maximum-sound early days. The result is that, unlike most Mogwai albums, Beast lumbers instead of flows: There are high points (like the calm "Team Handed" and its swelling neighbor "Friend Of The Night"), but the album never finds its flow. In the world of (mostly) instrumental rock, that leads to dreaded ends: Mr. Beast, though loud and engaging, too often just fades into the background.