Now a fully fledged five piece, Scottish indie band Frightened Rabbit follow up The Midnight Organ Fight with a much bigger third offering. Originally just a solo project for Scott Hutchison, the band became a trio in 2005 and now, in an attempt to become Selkirk’s answer to Arcade Fire (or maybe The Polyphonic Spree), has added two new members to the ever increasing line-up. The result of this is The Winter Of Mixed Drinks, an album layered with swathes of guitars, keys, strings and backing vocals, sitting somewhere between the gloom and dirt of fellow kinsmen Glasvegas and the wide-eyed world of British Sea Power.
Buzzing and shimmering slowly into the life, Things opens The Winter Of Mixed Drinks in very understated style until Hutchison emotionally declares: “I didn’t need these things, I didn’t need them all”. The song’s premise of discarding those possessions that are not as important as the person you are longing for is beautifully delivered, letting the words take centre stage. As the guitars rise in the final minute, it is clear that this is a teasing introduction to a band who, after years in the darkness, now wants to be noticed.
An immediate early highlight Swim Until You Can’t See Land follows in style, proving that Hutchison can deliver an anthemic pop song, right out of the vaults of Idlewild or Snow Patrol. “Are you a man, are you a bag of sand?”, he asks amid the jangling sparkling guitars, handclaps and leaping drums. Magnificent song writing. If anything it repeats unnecessarily in the last minute, but you can’t fault a band for exploiting such a great lyric. The Loneliness and the Scream is much slower and takes a while to get going, lacking a structure until just under two minutes in, whereupon it slows to a halt only to return with a rousing choir of chanting howling vocals. Style over substance? Probably, but the band still sound fantastic right into the football terrace ending.
Next up, The Wrestle opens with pumping bass, adding thundering guitars and quickly ascending into a rousing torrent of vocals. After such a good start, The Winter Of Mixed Drinks threatens to become obvious and predictable. Granted the band is playing to strengths and doing what they know best but the songs are beginning to lack substance. Thankfully the six minute odyssey Skip The Youth, emerging from a tremendous wall of building industrial noise before the more delicate combination of Hutchison and guitar take over, gets things back on track. Another exquisitely arranged and performed song, this time the lack of discernible frame and closing stadium vocals is a fine, if messy, addition.
Another spiralling slice of pop perfection arrives in the shape of Nothing Like You. Even with the clumsy lyrics: “She was not the cure for cancer. And all my questions asked for answers” followed by the wonderful: “There is nothing like someone new. This girl she was nothing like you”, this is pure excellence from start to finish. Skipping quickly past the interlude Man / Bag of Sand which would have worked much better as an extension of Swim Until You Can’t See Land, FootShooter is another open-hearted piano-driven anthem with Hutchison’s stream-of-consciousness style of poetic delivery interspersed with more glorious vocal backing. A great chorus lifts an otherwise flat arrangement. A song of subtle understated majesty.
More proficient lyricism and backing vocals can be found within Not Miserable, slow and deliberate in the first half, repeated yet more urgent in the second, this builds elegantly into a frenzy of drums and strings. The third of the most obvious radio-friendly songs, thanks to another simple chorus, Living In Colour suffers slightly from the relentless pounding drums and threatening repetition. Even through his often awkward mumbling voice, Hutchison can fill songs with depth and emotion: “And as the night started swallowing. You put the blood to my blue lips. Forced the life through still veins. Filled my heart with red again”. And strings fill the final thirty seconds. Closing with Yes, I Would, The Winter Of Mixed Drinks draws out a falsetto from Hutchison; both a pleasant surprise and baffling turn-around in equal measure. Only Frightened Rabbit can get away with this outpouring of emotion coupled with trite handclaps that would have Coldplay running for the hills.
Frightened Rabbit is obviously building on earlier cult success and The Winter Of Mixed Drinks certainly makes no pretence about the band’s intentions and the five-piece consistently make good use of a strong formula. It often gets too comfortable and hard layers of sound often protect the softness beneath, but within this are real moments of quality. There is no doubt that Frightened Rabbit is formed from talented musicians (especially the shabby charm of Hutchison), the album is well-crafted and, in spite of a tendency to throw everything into the mix, the music is controlled and polished. This is an assured and definitive step up for a band who are now well up amongst their peers.
-- CS (for AltSounds)