March 13, 2008

Ups and Downs, Shades of Grey

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Meet me in Austin; it’s goin’ down! This weekend, the arguably hippest of all Texan cities will host the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival. Showcasing over 100 bands over the three-day weekend, it is sure to be an orderly blur of peace, love and music. In honor of this momentous occasion, I’ve decided to review a sort-of-oldie-but-definitely-a-goodie, Glasgow’s Frightened Rabbit.
Their debut record, Sing the Greys, was first released across the pond way back in May 2006 on a local indie start-up label, Hits the Fan. In November of 2007, they re-released their album under the aegis of Fat Cat Records. And voila, mediocre stateside recognition.
It’s really a shame that Frightened Rabbit has been flying under the radar for so long, since their sound pleasantly mixes elements of folk, pop and a heavy Scottish brogue to a seriously satisfying result. They tend towards the folk-pop end of the modern music continuum, bolstering their softer sensibilities with heavy post-punk rhythms.
The band is comprised of two brothers — Scott and Grant Hutchinson — whose structure harkens to Oasis in a big way, and not just because I’m American and lump (nearly all) British Isles musicians together. They are pensive, they are sensitive and boy oh boy, are they ever downtrodden.
With lyrics like “What’s the blues, when you’ve got the greys? I think I’ve given up, my body’s given in,” Frightened Rabbit takes a bulk of their lyrical inspiration from the ennui and drudgery of the day-to-day. The title track, “The Greys,” from which the aforementioned lyrics were taken, assaults the listener with an aggressive guitar riff and cymbal crashes. Harder-hitting than Belle and Sebastian’s tinkling-twee androgyny, no?
But not all of their tracks follow a formulaic post-punk equation. “Behave” marks a folkier approach to songwriting, both in melody and lyrics, retelling the story of an impatient, timid love affair: “Oh, he’s just itching to telephone you/ Behave, behave/I don’t know quite how to behave.” In addition, the interspersed “Incident” tracks are purely instrumental, underlining their penchant for soaring, operatic instrumentality — similar to Band of Horses, or a more muted Explosions in the Sky.
Still, in spite of many great tracks, the album skids to a stop at certain points, slowing the momentum considerably. Take the song “Yawns.” This track makes me do just that despite its great melody. Regaling a story of a failing relationship, Hutchinson sings, “She yawns because she’s bored/ He yawns because he cannot sleep anymore.” Really? With nearly a full album of evocative, poignant lyrics, you include a song about yawning?!
Unfortunately, “Yawns” is not an anomaly within the album, either. “Music Now” is another example of this shoddy songsmanship. Starting with an insistent drumbeat and band members screaming “Music Now!” — the track quickly disintegrates into a crappy, poorly-executed diatribe against the musical pretensions of New Musical Express (a.k.a. NME, a popular weekly U.K. pop magazine).
Listen, I understand your angle: trying to satirize the music business from on the “inside,” but do you really need to publish a silly song to make your point?
Overall, Frightened Rabbit’s debut seems a good deal like Scotland’s national dish, Haggis: hearty and filled with disparate elements that somehow work well together. While certain ingredients are downright revolting on their own, taken on the whole, the dish commands attention for its quirkiness and innovation.