Frightened Rabbit’s The Midnight Organ Fight was one of the surprise joys of 2008: stirring whilst also being quite, quite miserable, its modest little package, all pencil drawings and compact size, contained an album which sprawled whilst also maintaining its focus. Its title, of course, is an unwieldy euphemism for sex, and Scott Hutchison’s lyrics delved deep into its fall-0ut. It was a break-up record, but, rarely, a startling and revelatory one. Its follow up, released earlier this month as The Winter of Mixed Drinks, contains a song entitled ‘Not Miserable’; it is emphatically nothing so straight-forward as a break-up record. It is also, strangely, not nearly as surprising as its forebear.
This may be because Frightened Rabbit have become a five-piece. The constraints of the trio once called them to unusual efforts; the more common quintet format offers them a broader musical pallet but also access to the usual tricks – twinkly guitar parts over heavy rhythm chords, lilting bass over freed-up drumming. Grant Hutchison on skins remains the band’s secret weapon – loose-limbed and creative, his percussion adds an extra, skipping dimension to what are essentially indie folk songs. But I can’t shake the feeling that the new space he has been given has led him to try out all the cool stuff he’s heard and wants to do, rather than develop his own style to fill the constraints of what have always been his brother’s straining-to-be-anthemic compositions.
Scott’s lyrics, too, whilst still more literate than most others, feel less arresting – there’s no ‘The Modern Leper’ here, and certainly no ‘My Backwards Walk’. Nor does the album feature as musically a refreshing moment as the keening, airy ‘Good Arms vs Bad Arms’: The Winter of Mixed Drinks feels more uniform, and stodgier as a result, despite its ostensibly sunnier disposition.
I hate reviews of albums which go along the lines of ‘I really liked this band’s last album – this one is nothing like it, and sucks!’ I am conscious this is my argument here, and particularly given the singular circumstances in which Hutchison wrote the painful The Midnight Organ Fight, expecting another such album is unreasonable. In addition, this disappointment is unfair on songs like ‘Swim Until You Can’t See Land’ or ‘Man/Bag of Sand’, which offer a great deal to the attentive listener; The Winter of Mixed Drinks is a fine album with some fine songs, and you should listen to it. I expect it to grow on me throughout the year. But overall the new album doesn’t strike me as much as the last – Frightened Rabbit aren’t as interesting on this release. I hate reviews that make this argument, but sometimes I just agree with them.