Review Summary: And though it's easier now, I will always remember the night that I almost drowned, all alone in a house.
When 2008's The Midnight Organ Fight
wiped away the last of its tears, Frightened Rabbit's future direction was already clear as day and to a huge extent inevitable. The critical acclaim their sophomore release garnered propelled the Scottish indie-rockers into a spotlight so close to the mainstream they couldn't ignore it, and tracks like 'Poke' and 'Keep Yourself Warm' soared to cult classic status with a little help from appearances on TV drama soundtracks. Mostly, though, their breakthrough record had worn them out, both emotionally and musically; its suffocated, heartbroken plot and atmosphere had run their course, and nobody who connected with the record would begrudge vocalist Scott Hutchison his re-emergence from the water that threatened to drown him on 'Floating In The Forth'. That same song had him looking forwards, vowing to "save suicide for another year," and there is little doubt that the band's third studio album uses that veiled optimism and hope for change as its conceptual basis.
In tandem with those liberated sentiments, the musical foundations for The Winter Of Mixed Drinks
are much less dense and self-involved than those of its pre-decessor. Lead single 'Swim Until You Can't See Land' would have suggested that in any case, and the track serves as a microcosm of the record as a whole and particularly of its differences to Midnight
. Trading misery for open waters, the band are still playing front-room indie-folk anthems, but from slightly further away. This isn't wholly a bad thing; the understated, welcoming guitar line is not unrecognisable as a Rabbit hook, and even possesses a new, almost cinematic edge capped off by closing strings and horns. In short, it's a track of evolution, one which gains scope and ambition but loses proximity in its reaching for larger venues. A steady and necessary progression of sound, certainly, and one which bears much of the same character as Midnight
, but at first listen it is likely to sound underwhelming, if only because Hutchison has moved on and the listener is still mourning.
In any case, aware of the expectations placed upon them by recent success and knowing the difficulties in recreating something as special as Midnight
, it's fair to say Winter
is nowhere close to a disappointing release. The highlights are slightly more pointed, the titanic 'Skip The Youth' acting as the record's centrepiece, building for a minute through feedback before dropping out to hollow piano and guitar. It's a flawlessly executed track which proves that the band's penchant for mixing gut-wrenching lyrics with melodies more becoming of love songs didn't only exist when Hutchison was an emotional wreck; as he sings, he sounds fragile: "I would, but I am so tired," crushing a soul which later cries: "Skip the youth, it's aging me too much!" round and round, scared to let go. 'Footshooter', though its mellow, uplifting backing vocals are lifted from Snow Patrol's guide to Making Them Cry Happy Tears
, is similarly arresting, and probably the record's strongest melodic offering as a whole.
There's more variety present on Winter
than there was before - Hutchison's falsetto on the moving closer 'Yes, I Would'; 'Nothing Like You's straightforward indie-rock; the distortion-soaked slow-burner that is 'Things' - but these multiple approaches, though they never stumble noticeably, contribute to a generally less cohesive album, not helped by a difficult track listing. The band's talents are patchworked across 11 tracks rather than condensed into the majority for consistency's sake, and the quality of the songs alone will never be enough to rival Midnight
's end result. The single trouble is that for all of Winter
's victories, it's easy to find them and it's fairly obvious why they were put there. The enigma that accompanied Midnight
has been replaced with pop songs aimed at people - intelligent pop songs, no doubt, and tender people, but pop songs and people all the same. Hutchison sounds less like he's singing for himself, and the result is a fantastic but all-too-calculated take on a more mainstream Frightened Rabbit; the indie-folk aesthetic is now more accurately defined as folk-pop, and while it mostly feels natural it's difficult to not miss the raw beauty of a more personal sound.
Still, Frightened Rabbit it is, and what The Winter Of Mixed Drinks
offers is a refreshing flipside to a band we know can do miserable, and rest assured they do hopeful (or just normal) excellently, as well. 'Living In Colour' takes a swipe at this record's Modern Leper role, and though it falls short (what track wouldn't?) it still hits home hard. The momentum refuses to cease for the track's duration and the euphoric refrain of, "Living in colour, I can see the paint on your toes," makes it memorable as easily the happiest track Frightened Rabbit have recorded to date. It's clear at that point that this release will accompany Midnight
in the band's back catalogue, and it does so brilliantly, offering hope that masks the pain, anthems that remedy the drunken laments and hooks that rival any. It may be less complete, less single-minded, and ultimately a lesser record, but that doesn't make it any less important. It will be interesting to see what this band can do now they've got the break-up curve out of their systems, but for the moment bask in one of the year's better records so far.