Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Gut Feeling: Frightened Rabbit - Pedestrian Verse

Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse
Atlantic, 2013

The display of raw emotional damage Scott Hutchinson poured into Frightened Rabbit’s second album The Modern Organ Fight didn’t necessarily reinvent the break-up album. It did, however, approach the time-worn subject with the sort of rawness and honesty and embarrassing detail that ranked it right up there with the best of them. Is the break-up album a modern phenomena? Certainly there’s a graph showing a marked upswing in the last decade of break-up albums. We could pair it with a graph illustrating the rise of morbid young men having easier access to recording equipment and music distribution via the Internet. Either way, as a connoisseur of the break-up album and someone who tends to approach break-ups head on and dive into a sea of misery, The Modern Organ Fight was one of the best I’d ever heard. Better than Blood on the Tracks. Better than Dear You. It’s my favorite, and I didn’t even listen to it during a break-up. I didn’t even listen to it the year it came out. I didn’t come around to Frightened Rabbit until 2009, the year my wife and I started dating and falling in love. The weirdest thing is that we fell more in love with each other while listening to that album and blabbing about how great it was.

In the three years since Frightened Rabbit has fought their way to my Top 5. The Winter of Mixed Drinks was my favorite record of 2010 and my love for this band is well known and widespread. So I was pleasantly surprised that I forgot Pedestrian Verse was even coming out and thanks to the Internet, I didn’t even have to go out to a store, find a place to park, and trudge through the snow to get it. Pedestrian Verse served as the soundtrack to a lengthy errand I had to run out to suburban Minneapolis and when I got home I burned a copy for the CD player and I’ve been listening to it since 2PM. And I’m still wrapping my head around how such a scrappy little band full of all these magnificent rough edges cleaned themselves up and put out a record that is more beautifully produced, sonically diverse, and cohesive than their previous records. But your favorite bands do that. They surprise you. That’s why they’re your favorite bands (or not, I guess, but I’ve got a real soft spot for bands that make the effort to keep pushing their limits).

Unfortunately, after the first four, really quite excellent tracks, Pedestrian Verse hits the skids with a one-two punch of repetitive non-starters—“Late March Death March” and “December Traditions”. After the first few spins, I almost immadetly skipped these two. “Late March Death March” reminds me of one of those  Silversun Pickups songs (or any modern rock song for that matter) that repeats the chorus for five minutes and really doesn’t try to construct anything. “December Traditions” is just plain murky. A bleak, maudlin thing that brings things to a grinding halt.

And then the chiming guitars of “Housing (in)” come to the rescue and it’s smooth sailing. “State Hospital” is a minor masterpiece and illustrates the brilliant results Scott Hutchinson is capable of when he steps away from the microscope that analyzes his own life and tells a different kind of story. It proves that Hutchinson can write a super serious song without getting overwrought (which is ultimately why “December Traditions” leaves such an awful taste in my mouth). It’s beautiful and huge and dynamic and maybe Frightened Rabbit’s most accomplished track to date. “Dead Now” displays Hutchinson’s obsession with death as a metaphor, a trick he’s perfected over the last two FR albums. What keeps tracks like these from becoming too glum is the dark humor and the bright melodies that make refrains like “There’s something wrong with me” sound almost hopeful.

I wanted Pedestrian Verse to be perfect so bad it’s confusing my judgment. Ultimately the mid-album clunkers keep getting in the way. “The Woodpile” is an obscenely brilliant single with an earwormy hook and a lyric sheet that rings classic FR. Opener “Acts of Man” again delivers some terrific lines that highlight the blend of self-deprecation and unsentimental honesty that make Hutchinson’s songs so listenable. How the song can open with “I am that dickhead in the kitchen/ Giving wine to your best girl’s glass” and end with “I have never wanted more to be a man/ And build a house around you.” It’s all so frighteningly human, elevated by Hutchinson’s ability to sing heartbreak with a crooked smile. And faults be damned, at the end of the day Pedestrian Verse is an accomplished album from a band that deserves all the praise in the world. I’ll pour a sip from my 40 for the fact that it’s not going to top my year end list (I had such hopes!) and try to enjoy the record like a normal human being.

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