A couple of years ago, Frightened Rabbit released one of the best break-up albums I have ever heard, The Midnight Organ Fight (yes, the title means what you think it means). It was also an enjoyable as hell rock record, full of the sort of emotional honesty that Coldplay’s Chris Martin probably has wet dreams about writing (I’m sorry, kids, but if your eyes get all watery over “Fix You,” then you might consider seeking professional help. Or you’re married to Chris Martin). So they set the bar incredibly high for a follow-up album. I don’t know how you follow up great albums, honestly. I know people do it successfully but, if you know you’ve made something good (and hopefully, your fans will let you know), the attempt to top it becomes increasingly daunting. David Bowie made Hunky Dory and followed it with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (we use the full name for such albums around here). Neutral Milk Hotel made In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and then stopped making music – perhaps they knew they couldn’t top it. The Hold Steady still gets better with every album (and they have another chance in May, although I don’t know how you beat Stay Positive). The National followed the awesome Alligator with the superb – by which I mean, “The best album of 2007, if you’re into that sort of thing” – Boxer (my hopes for this year’s High Violet are sent soaring by this little performance here). But the Clash followed London Calling with Sandinista!. So even if you’re awesome, you can stumble after hitting a home run. Look at most of what the Rolling Stones did after Exile on Main Street (and assume, in your looking, that they died sometime before 1980, because their output in my lifetime could most charitably be described as “dogshit.”)
Frightened Rabbit, I’m pleased to announce, have not stumbled. The Winter of Mixed Drinks is a logical sonic step from The Midnight Organ Fight (they’ve added two members and beefed up their sound considerably) and, thematically, there’s still a very fine line between fucking and fighting for Scott Hutchinson. But, if the The Midnight Organ Fight was the ass-bruising break-up, the healing begins on The Winter of Mixed Drinks. And, thankfully, that healing doesn’t begin in the namby-pamby, I’ve-found-God-and-I-forgive-you sort of way. There’s blood and scabs (Hutchinson, perhaps more than most songwriters, is not afraid to get physical in his lyrics. Frightened Rabbit’s last two albums have been littered with references to collapsed lungs, scabs, blood, and failing organs. Good times!) and wrestling and death and premature old age (“Skip the Youth” finds Hutchinson trying to take a pass on youth because “it’s aging me too much.” I can understand how he feels, though I enjoy being young. 30 is, if you’ve done anything right in your life, like being 20 again but you’re smarter). No, The Winter of Mixed Drinks is “Fuck you, I’ve found something better” and you could almost divide the album into sides of “Fuck You” and “I’ve Found Something Better”. “Nothing Like You” might bridge the two sides nicely; it begins with “This is a story and you’re not in it” and goes on to celebrate that the new girl is nothing like the old one. I’ve gotta say at this point that I’m very happy none of Frightened Rabbits songs really apply to my life over the past six years.
Musically, you might accuse Frightened Rabbit of suffering from “wanna-be U2” syndrome (early symptoms: wearing sunglasses in doors at night and having a guitarist with a single non-name like the Edge. I should like to point out here, in case I haven’t alienated the U2 fans enough yet, that the Edge’s guitar playing is about as edgy as a snot bubble) or attempting to go all stadium-rock on your ass, but I will dismiss your objections with my usual flawless logic (thank you, George Carlin, for that phrase. No, fuck that. Thank you, George Carlin, for everything). First off, if you’ve listened to the first two Frightened Rabbit albums (Sing the Greys is pretty good – they’re kind of finding their feet on it, but it’s got some great tunes), you know that Scott Hutchinson has always had a tendency to reach for the rafters. Second, he has a voice for it, a voice that is better than Bono’s has been in years (am I committing Pop Blasphemy by saying that? Who cares? Also, I know he’s done a lot for Africa and that’s cool, but fuck Bono. And fuck Chris Martin, “The Scientist” and “Everything’s Not Lost” notwithstanding). And C), there’s nothing wrong with the biggish rock sound Frightened Rabbit is going for on their last two records because they hit their marks pretty squarely. And Scott Hutchinson is able to keep it pretty real lyrically (“I’m verbal when I’m loaded,” he sings on “Foot Shooter”) so I don’t get the feeling of generic emotions I get from Coldplay and Snow Patrol and all those bands that are, so far, much bigger than Frightened Rabbit. The Winter of Mixed Drinks has lilting melodies, well-crafted harmonies, and Hutchinson’s visceral writing to elevate it; there’s nothing wrong with making a big, sensitive rock record if it’s as good as either The Midnight Organ Fight or The Winter of Mixed Drinks. So maybe the next time you hear some chimey, emotional nonsense from Coldplay or U2, you might be better off suggesting that those two bands really want to be Frightened Rabbit. Because secretly, they do. Or they should.
Back to the healing theme for a second. I like the suggestion, implicit in the album and explicit on the song “Swim Until You Can’t See Land”, that physical exertion is good for getting over heartbreak. I’ve definitely been there before and I know lots of other people who have as well. Really, for any kind of emotional/spiritual/existential exhaustion or frustration, there’s nothing like a good bout of physical exercise (be it swimming, playing in a band, boxing, running, fighting or fucking) to trick your brain into giving you drugs (endorphins, kids. That’s science. Google that shit if you don’t believe me).
Part of what makes Frightened Rabbit so appealing is that Scott Hutchinson’s romantic failings are so human and so are his coping mechanisms. The Winter of Mixed Drinks suggests, to me anyway, that their appeal will last as long as Frightened Rabbit avoids falling into tired cliches like “lights will guide you home” and “you can make me perfect again.”