Review Summary: Crushing, anthemic, folksy indie-rock from Scotland with heartfelt vocals and relatable lyrics, performed live in 2008 in Glasgow. And so much more.
There are some bands in music that it just doesn't do to describe – some albums that it's unfair to try and put into words. In 2008 I tried my hardest to explain why The Midnight Organ Fight by Frightened Rabbit was such a moving work of art. In retrospect, it was a failure, but I defy any work of non-fiction ever released to encompass the spectrum of emotions, relatable lyrics, spirit... however you put it, the Scottish group's second full-length album has something present in so few songs, let alone entire albums: a deep and very, very well executed importance. Indie-folk, if that's what it is, has surely rarely been done better; there's certainly very few moments that match the heart-tugging anti-climax of Poke, or the gradual keyboard-soaked build of My Backwards Walk, or the sing-along cry-along final chorus of The Modern Leper.
If you've never seen Frightened Rabbit perform live I strongly suggest you get yourself onto their Myspace and check out when they're playing near you; they eclipsed Death Cab at Sheffield's O2 Academy when in support, and that's a very difficult thing to do. The crowd was mesmerised and Quietly, Now will have you in exactly the same place as everybody who's ever stood yards away from Scott Hutchison as he sang in that vulnerable Scottish accent about everything from casual sex meaning nothing to casual sex meaning everything, from falling back into the same arms to someone falling back into yours. This release, a 'primarily acoustic' live recording of TMOF's track listing at The Captain's Rest in Glasgow, is pretty much as good as being there.
If it sounds like a cop-out – like there's nothing they could do to better the original, or like a sales ploy – then I completely understand your concerns, as they were mine before I pressed play and The Modern Leper kicked into motion. They were still my concerns four bars in as I wondered how it could be possible for me to enjoy this track as much as the album version. It's probably safe to say that I didn't; it's also safe to say that it doesn't matter. What Quietly, Now does to The Midnight Organ Fight's tracks (minus two of the short instrumentals) varies from song to song. Stripped down, the focus shifts to the words Hutchison is singing, and if this is at any point a bad thing it's only between verses. The Modern Leper always was devastating, upsetting and yet strangely anthemic; on this record, it's equally so, but it takes on a slightly more pensive aesthetic. Poke is hardly different to the recorded version of the song but it doesn't need to be: as an acoustic track is the way that it works, and it is just as brilliant here.
But the stunning feature of Quietly, Now is its ability to make a couple of the songs in Frightened Rabbit's arsenal better. My Backwards Walk seems to start awkwardly, gains guitars and is fully equipped by its end, but the tension and the tentative nature of the build is one of the most moving moments I've ever experienced in music. An equally inspired performance comes on I Feel Better, which has never been left so vulnerable. Most of these tracks comprise guitars, drums, bass and keyboard but their unplugged nature makes everything sound that little bit more hollow, that little bit more personal. To add to the home-made feel, the live backing vocals are brilliantly delivered; sometimes they drown out the lead, and oftentimes they are imperfect, and all of that adds up to the feeling that you've never been closer to this music – that it's never been more real.
The band put some idle banter in between tracks and seem to invite a different guest to the stage for every other song, but none of that really matters. Quietly, Now creates a whole new universe of meaning for a set of already phenomenal songs, and will doubtless deepen the importance of many of the studio recordings found on The Midnight Organ Fight. Maybe in time the rawness of these live performances will grow tiresome; maybe they will eclipse the originals. Who cares? If you have the album – even if you don't – this is an essential artefact of music that means something. It's in the distant backing vocals that might even come from the crowd: “It takes more than f**king someone to keep yourself warm.” It's in the picked acoustic guitar midway through Good Arms, and Hutchison's self-confession: “I'm not ready to see you this happy.” It's something I'm not even going to try and describe any longer; it's something you need to hear.