We Got the Beat
Letdown album: Frightened Rabbit thinks bigger, but impact smaller
Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison is what I would call a big feeler. Sensitive to every emotion that has ever crossed his path, he then pours it all into his songs, his voice often crackling with feelings that are simply too big for him to contain.
When last we heard Hutchison, two years ago on the Scottish band’s breakthrough second album "The Midnight Organ Fight," those emotions were pointed squarely at an ex-lover, providing a powerful song cycle that earned this band a spot on many year-end best-of lists. Dealing with all of the success clearly hasn’t changed his yearning though, just his focus. On the band’s new record, "The Winter of Mixed Drinks," he seems to be looking for nothing less than the meaning of life. You can’t question the guy’s ambition.
The band that surrounds him goes for atmospheric, slow-building music that seems most indebted to U2, especially on Bono and company's spacious ballads like “Bad.”
Scott Hutchison's brother Grant plays the drums for Frightened Rabbit, and he favors pummeling rhythms that seem almost independent of the songs they adorn, a la Larry Mullen Jr. On many of the songs here, the rest of the group play within the spaces left by the brothers. The songs come together even as the band members never seem to do the same.
This kind of approach is powerful when it works, as in album-opener “Things,” which builds from echoing guitar and the distant thunder of Grant Hutchison. Scott Hutchison surveys the detritus that seems to have taken over his life and decides “I didn’t need these things.” Following fast on that success, “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” has a jaunty rhythm and a circular guitar riff accompanying the singer’s search for answers in a symbolic dip into deep waters. The questing continues into the forest on “The Loneliness and the Scream,” which builds and builds before reversing course for a cathartic, stomping finish.
The drawback in this approach comes when it overreaches, leaving songs with the frame of an epic but without the follow-through. “Skip the Youth” and “Not Miserable” fall into this trap, as they seem to be endlessly climbing but never reach their peak. It’s a welcome respite when the band coalesces as a unit for the pop-savvy rush of “Nothing Like You,” in which Scott Hutchison takes leave of his self-inspection to notice a new romance on his doorstep.
The main fault of "The Winter of Mixed Drinks," and the reason it pales a bit next to its predecessor, is that it feels too ruminative; all of the contemplation blunts the emotion that the band wants to convey. Whereas songs like “The Modern Leper” and “My Backwards Walk” from the previous album had rawness in the feelings to balance the band’s measured song architecture, the songs here are often pretty but distant, mitigating the impact.
On the lovely closing tune, “Yes, I Would,” Scott Hutchison, singing in emotive falsetto, seems ready to be pulled back from his solitude and out of his stupor, and that seems like a positive sign for Frightened Rabbit going forward. You can’t blame them for this misstep too much though. Who knew that vast musings on life itself would be less affecting than the open wounds of a broken heart?
Sample "The Winter of Mixed Drinks"
Adobe Flash Required for flash player."Things"
Adobe Flash Required for flash player."Not Miserable"
Adobe Flash Required for flash player."Yes I Would"