Better Than: Experiencing firsthand any of the myriad failures of human romance that thematically dominate so many Frightened Rabbit songs.
There are three time-honored barroom traditions that constitute the DNA of Frightened Rabbit’s music and define the arc of their live show. They have introspective barstool confessionals. They have a whole lot of botched come-ons. And if you combine those two elements, you’d maybe approach the sum of all the raucous shout-alongs the band uses to buoy a chorus here or a big ending there. It’s this spectrum of wry, lonesome self-deprecation to rapturous gang’s-all-here refrains that best characterize Frightened Rabbit: They’re one of those super-earnest indie bands that render intimate, personal tales with cinematic sweeps, but do it in a streamlined way. Frightened Rabbit songs are almost always packed with emotion and with the gratification of cathartic guitar breaks, but rarely creep past four or five minutes in length.
That’s why the title of their latest album, Pedestrian Verse, was such a perfect tension. Frightened Rabbit’s music has always worked best when throwing the profane and banal right in with the rafters-reaching moments, letting it all clatter around in dense arena-ready four minute epics. So any bit of catharsis felt deserved, like you’ve followed frontman Scott Hutchison through all the dirt, sweat, and alcohol of who knows how many nights at the pub and later nights in a stranger’s bedroom.
One thing about Hutchison: you can tell he’s done plenty of time on the barstool, racking up the hours to earn the right to sing and talk the way he does. This dude can really sell a line that looks horrible on the page, and that’s never been clearer than when he does it live. Take, for example, “My Backwards Walk”: “You’re the shit/And I’m knee deep in it.” That’d be pretty rough coming from most people’s mouths. Maybe a Scottish drawl just makes things more endearing and more profound, but this line played huge with the crowd, being the first moment (of many) that had seemingly the whole crowd screaming the lines back.
And like any good barstool orator, he’s a talker. Between almost every song, Hutchison cracked jokes, told anecdotes, and used a lot of swear words. He talked about how he had a Michael Hutchence joke he used to tell, but had to stop because even he realized it crossed a line. Most importantly, he went on a tear that seemed to sum up the whole emotional contrast of Frightened Rabbit’s music, the maturation that’s occurred over the band’s four albums. It started with “We’re here in a dark room full of strangers” and his urging everyone to make all the same mistakes he sings about, and it ended with “We’re going on a journey, by the end of the night I want there to be marriages and I want there to be babies.”
Sadly, sometimes what happened in between the talking–you know, the songs–left a bit less of an impact. The band split the setlist pretty evenly between new songs – -from the just-serviceable opener “Holy” to the highlight “State Hospital” — and the warhorses –“The Modern Leper,” “Heads Roll Off,” hell, anything they played off of The Midnight Organ Fight, really. And, no doubt, they seemed into it, but the live performance did adhere noticeably close to what they’ve laid down in studio. You don’t go to a Frightened Rabbit show expecting jams, necessarily. But Hutchison estimated they’d already played “Nothing Like You,” a track from 2010’s The Winter of Mixed Drinks, about a thousand times, and aside from a more ragged yell here, a dirtier guitar tone there, most of the songs sounded like they ranked the same. Not that any of that’s bad. It was really quite good. But the band does the whole contained catharsis thing so well, it’d be interesting to hear them really let loose a bit in a live setting.
Credit where credit’s due, though. There were a handful of crucial moments that did stand out. On Pedestrian Verse, there’s an awesome moment at the end of “Acts of Man” — a very good song suddenly, for just twenty-five seconds, kicks into a coda dominated by a guitar groove laden with some effect. It’s an unconventional sound for the band, and knowing that they close main sets with “Acts of Man” I was particularly excited to see what they did. Then the moment came, and for a second I thought my fears for anti-climax would be confirmed: most of the percussion dropped out, the riff sounded flattened and weak, without the swagger or body it deserved. But right where the studio version closes, the band roared back to life, the strobes did their frenetic oscillation thing, and that guitar riff mutated into what it always wanted to be, breaking out of the constraints and becoming heavier than anything the band’s ever actually recorded.
Then there was one other key event where suddenly it all crystallized. For closer “The Loneliness and the Scream” the guys from opening band Winterslee came out, lending extra percussion and a bunch more gruff voices for the last anthemic “Oh, oh, oh, ohs!” of the night. Suddenly there’s like 10 scruffy European men onstage and a few thousand American and European men and women of varying degrees of scruffiness yelling it back at them. They reached that communal concert zone, this time where everyone’s as sweaty as the band and probably a lot drunker. It was the shit, and we were knee deep in it. And we’d found our prophet. He preaches the pedestrian verse.
Critical Bias: Frightened Rabbit’s mix of drunken youth fervor and world-weariness is sort of the perfect soundtrack for Spring days that feel like Winter.
Overheard: “Before we got signed to Warner Bros., we recorded a 24 hour song. It sold 13 copies. You know, cuz it came with the skull, you had to buy a human skull. They could only get 13 human skulls.”
Random Notebook Dump: I spent the second half of the show distracted by curiosity about what Hutchison’s Michael Hutchence joke was.
The Modern Leper
Old, Old Fashioned
Late March, Death March
Nothing Like You
Head Rolls Off
The Oil Slick
My Backwards Walk
Poke (Hutchison solo)
Good Arms Vs. Bad Arms
Swim Until You Can’t See Land
Acts of Man
Living In Colour
The Loneliness And the Scream