Friday, February 26, 2010

"We're Not Above Reviewing Leaks": Frightened Rabbit - The Winter of Mixed Drinks

When I really get into a “discovery” album—meaning either a band’s first effort, or the record that introduces me to a band—I’m often disappointed by the follow-up. Most likely, this is a personal problem, one of expectations, and not the fault of the artists. I say this upfront because I loved Frightened Rabbit’s Midnight Organ Fight (FatCat, 2008)—partially because of the immediacy and intensity of the record, the feeling of four guys playing slightly imperfect but heartfelt indiepop in a room together, and partially because the bitter breakup theme running through the album resonated with my personal problems at the time. While the latter no longer applies, I still find myself able to return to Midnight Organ Fight and engage with the record the same way I did nearly two years ago.

So, ok. I admit it. I came to The Winter of Mixed Drinks (FatCat, 2010) with lofty expectations. I didn’t expect Midnight Organ Fight II: Revenge of the Organ, but I expected the same immediacy, the same intensity as the last album had. I expected the promise of the last album to be somehow fulfilled or at least furthered. On first listening to Mixed Drinks, I was carried away by the pop melodies and the familiar feel of the songs. On second listen, I realized why the songs feel so familiar: All of them would have a place on Snow Patrol’s Final Straw. Depending on your taste, you can read that statement how you choose. On repeated listen, I’ve realized The Winter of Mixed Drinks, though in a lot of ways a more accessible and polished album, fell short of meeting those expectations.

For one, Frightened Rabbit decided to forego the live studio recording of Organ, so this album lacks that intimate feeling of being in the room with the musicians. For another, and this is a direct result of the first, the production on Mixed Drinks seems to take much more focus, resulting in a clean and beautiful album, but one that crosses the line into over-production a few too many times. For yet another, Mixed Drinks lacks a true standout song, like Organ had with “Good Arms vs. Bad Arms.”

“Things,” the opening track on Mixed Drinks, immediately sets a tension that I expected to run through the record. The first 34 seconds consist of low-register fuzz guitar with heavy echo and a piano tinkling in the background before the vocals begin. Once the drums join in the party, the conflict is mounting as Scott Hutchison sings about not needing “things,” the material possessions that get in the way of our interpersonal relationships. “So I’ll shed my clothes,” he says, “shed my flesh down to the bone, and burn the rest.” A powerful statement of stripping oneself bare, and Mixed Drinks is in a lot of ways about flaying ourselves. Later in the chorus, Hutchison sings, “It’s just you I need, you my human heat, and the things are only things, and nothing brings me life, brings me love.” The need for human heat returns us to Organ’s “The Twist’ and Hutchison seems to be exploring similar territory.

This opening track sets up the rest of the album in two key ways. First, it establishes the complex arrangements and production that the rest of the album will follow. “Things” is so layered with instruments that to hear them all requires a focused listening with good headphones. Second, “Things” establishes a tension for the album that we hope will be carried through and fulfilled by the end.

Sadly, that tension is neither carried through nor fulfilled. Immediately following “Things” is the album’s first single, “Swim Until You Can’t See Land,” a bright, poppy, radio-friendly song whose opening contrasts sharply with the urgency of the first track. The chorus of “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” is Hutchison’s attempt to make the “sink or swim” cliché somehow interesting, by repeating the song’s title three times before asking, “are you a man or a bag of sand?” Apparently, this question is so profound that the chorus’s two lines repeat ad nauseam on the album’s seventh track, “Man/Bag of Sand.” This play with cliché also comes up again in the song “Foot Shooter” toward the end of the album. (Bet you can’t guess what that one’s about.)

Following “Swim” are two tracks that begin the Snow Patrol comparison, “The Loneliness and the Scream” and “The Wrestle.” Both tracks have interesting lyrical tension, but their melodies and arrangements leave something wanting, and we’ve moved far from the tension of “Things.” This tension seems to be resumed in “Skip the Youth,” whose long introduction includes building layers of noise and skipping drums that we expect to come to an urgent boil. But when the vocals come in around the 1:45 mark, all that tension evaporates and we’re left with another bright, poppy song that relies on choir-like backing vocals and overwrought sentiments like “All I need is a place to lie. Guess a grave will have to do.” Unfortunately, graves function as a trope throughout the album, leaving that bitter taste of teenage sentiment in my mouth.

The two most immediately accessible songs on the album, “Nothing Like You” and “Living Colour” are both poppy, catchy, and upbeat. “Nothing Like You,” the second single, has those hints of Snow Patrol like earlier tracks did, but its themes of getting over an ex by getting with someone else bring us back to Midnight Organ Fight. “There is nothing like someone new,” Hutchison sings, “and this girl she was nothing like you.” “Living in Colour,” which has Top 40 written all over it, is the poppiest and catchiest offering on the album. On my first listening of the album, this was the song that immediately stood out. On my tenth listening, this is the track I anticipate. Other than “Things,” “Living in Colour” is the song that most resonates. Unfortunately, it is framed by “Not Miserable” and “Yes, I Would,” two slow, plodding but melodic tracks. “Yes, I Would” in particular drags, and seems a disappointing way to end an album that begins with such urgency and tension as “Things” sets up.

Overall, I have to say that Winter of Mixed Drinks is a very pretty album in terms of its songcraft and production, and the addition of strings to nearly every single track adds layers absent from Midnight Organ Fight. The songs are tight and catchy and the arrangements are complex. However, this feels every bit like one of those unfortunate indie crossover albums, where the relatively successful band tries to create mainstream appeal by writing catchy songs with simple and repetitive lyrics and adding strings to every. single. track. While Winter of Mixed Drinks has the potential to far surpass the success Frightened Rabbit achieved with Midnight Organ Fight, ultimately it lacks the staying power of its predecessor.

The Winter of Mixed Drinks is out March 1 in Europe and March 9 in North America, both on FatCat Records. You can preorder the album here.

1 comment:

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