Frightened Rabbit is on a hot streak. Starting with September of last year and the State Hospital EP, then through the release of Pedestrian Verse in February, and finally last Tuesday with the Late March, Death March EP, the band has given us a succession of great releases in just under twelve months, consistently operating at a ridiculously high level. This new EP has just three new tracks, but two of them—”Radio Silence” and “Default Blues”—are good enough to make me think they might’ve been competitors for this list if I’d been writing this a few months down the line. And yet, you wouldn’t necessarily know it. As well reviewed as the band has consistently been, it feels like Frightened Rabbit still doesn’t quite get the recognition they deserve. Pedestrian Verse, for one thing, certainly appears as if it’ll be one of the more slept-on releases come all the end of year lists.
Maybe it all goes back to a bit of mis-branding. Originating in the mid-’00s, one could’ve easily mistaken (and then written off) Frightened Rabbit as something cloying and twee, and while maybe some would still level the first criticism, there’s no question how misleading the name is with regards to the second. There is nothing shy about Frightened Rabbit’s music. It’s dramatic, ambitious indie rock. Frontman and primary songwriter Scott Hutchison crafts intimate, small-screen stories, but blows up his personal demons with emphatic crescendos and impassioned vocals. It’s the noise and clatter of someone shaking out the battered contents of their soul, and it’s every bit an exorcism, never a quaint diary entry.
As relatable as all Hutchison’s confessionals are, they can also sound a bit over-the-top in the abstract or when simply seen on paper, and, I don’t know, maybe that’s been a turnoff for some potential listeners? Really, the way Frightened Rabbit handles all the emotive qualities of their music is what makes them stand out in the indie crowd. Much of the reason they don’t sink into wallowing is Hutchison’s vocal delivery. Of course, there’s the appeal of that Scottish accent, and the way he’ll elongate a word just so when he wants. Something has always been utterly tactile in the way he pronounces things, to the point where one particular moment will define a song. Naturally, there’s the always-loving manner in which he warbles his way around a swear word. There’s also “On the northern side, there’s a fife of mine” in “Floating In The Forth,” or “In the clotheless wrestle/the clotheless animal” in “The Wrestle,” or, in the new “Default Blues,” “You’ve got your heroin monologues that you lifted from books.” (It’s entirely possible/likely that it’s “heroine monologues,” but in lieu of any online lyrics sheets, I’m going with “heroin” because I like the image of a “heroin monologue.”)
Credit can’t only be given to Hutchison. Though he’s always been the main architect behind the sound and themes of Frightened Rabbit, over the years the band has developed into a unit remarkably adept at the build-and-release fireworks that Hutchison’s writing requires, with the lineup now settled with longtime members Grant Hutchison on drums and Billy Kennedy on guitar and bass, and slightly more recent additions with guitarist/bassist Andy Monaghan and keyboardist Gordon Skene. All of those moments I mentioned above aren’t just special for the way Hutchison actually sings the words, but also for how the band plays behind them. In “Default Blues” they kick back into a buzzing, ramshackle groove under that indictment of you lifting those heroin monologues from books. Just after Hutchison mentions that fife of his, quiet but tumbling percussion begins to push the bubbling drama of “Floating In The Forth” over into the resolve of the layered vocals that mark its climax. In “The Wrestle,” the power of Hutchison’s line about the “clotheless animal” comes from the way he strains against the whirlpool of guitars, sounding far away yet threatening to drown him out. As for confluence of Hutchison’s use of swear words and the band’s playing, there’s no better example than “Keep Yourself Warm,” but we’ll get to that soon.
That way the band has been on a steady slow-burn of a rise is just one way in which they’ve always felt akin to the National. Frightened Rabbit is currently opening for the National, and it’s the sort of match-up that seems so perfect (but also overwhelming), that it’s curious how it hasn’t happened till now. There’s quite a bit of shared DNA between the two, from their mutual reliance on building tension and eventually, maybe, releasing it and the fact that both of their sounds have been shepherded into maturation by producer Peter Katis. (Both bands wound up contributing to If a Lot of Bands Play in the Woods…?, a covers album in tribute to Katis’ band Philisitnes, Jr. You should listen to Frightened Rabbit’s cover of “My Brother Tom, The Green Beret.”) Most importantly, each of them favor a mode of storytelling that’s deeply personal. The National’s Matt Berninger often goes cerebral and impressionistic; Scott Hutchison usually goes drunk and ragged and brutally honest. It’s the kind of approach that can be off-putting, but obviously rewarding once you’ve dug in and given a bit of yourself back to the music.
This is the kind of music that demands a fair amount of emotional investment from the listener, and because of that the ranks of Frightened Rabbit’s fans have their fervent opinions on their own favorites. Not to out myself as the target demo for this band or anything, but I spent a whole lot of winter days during college walking around Manhattan, living inside The Midnight Organ Fight (also: I have a beard). So, a little part of me died every time I had to cut a song from that album off this list. And after I left “4th Of July” off of the Soundgarden list, I already know I’m going to be in trouble with Michael for omitting “The Twist” and “The Wrestle” here (though they’re great songs! Sorry!). Anyway, for you longtime fans, let’s talk about a band that hasn’t yet gotten its due. For people who haven’t listened to Frightened Rabbit, check these songs out, and I’ll probably recommend a few more at some point in the comments.
10. “State Hospital” (from Pedestrian Verse, 2012)
It’s always been a bit difficult to hear “State Hospital” within the context of Pedestrian Verse, despite the album taking its name from one of the song’s lyrics. Maybe it’s because it had already seen release as the title track for the State Hospital EP in September of 2012, and had been hanging around for a while by the time Pedestrian Verse came out in February. Really, though, it’s because it’s one of those songs that once you hear it, it feels like it never wasn’t there. It seems like a classic Frightened Rabbit song that must’ve existed before last year, partially because it’s misleading. On the surface it has all the standard Frightened Rabbit tricks: quiet beginnings swelling to big choruses and an even bigger climax, driven by crashing drums and anthemic backing vocals. There’s more of a push and pull here, though, than a lot of their other songs, with “State Hospital” constantly building and then stripping things back away. Where it might initially seem a summation of everything that’d come before, this is how it actually points to what would occur on Pedestrian Verse. Hutchison remarked on how it was the first song he completed for the album, and how it set the template for what was to come. He sought to tell a story about another character, not his usual personal narrative. It carries the requisite emotion of a Frightened Rabbit song, but gets at it in a slightly different way, tweaking the classic elements of their music and defining the pattern for Pedestrian Verse. Even as it sticks out, “State Hospital” is a centerpiece for the album in that way, the track from which the whole thing emanates.
9. “Acts Of Man” (from Pedestrian Verse, 2012)
”Acts Of Man” opens Pedestrian Verse in an uncustomary way for a Frightened Rabbit song: just piano and Hutchison pushing himself into a wispy higher register. What follows is, fittingly, one of the more unique tracks in the band’s catalog. The whole thing has a sort of rhythmic lope to it, almost stop-start in the verse and then tumbling forth through the bridge and chorus, propelled on rolling toms and some well-placed, near percussive guitar chords. And then at the end, there’s that riff, a twenty second groove with a subdued swagger, seemingly at odds with the song’s lack of resolution or its evisceration of all the more lamentable extremes of how men can behave. “Acts Of Man” is littered with images of men doing things they shouldn’t because they can (“While the knight in shitty armour/ Rips the drunk out of her dress”) or just because (“Man, he breeds although he shouldn’t/ He’s breeding just because he cums/ Acts the father for a minute/ Till the worst instincts return”). Recently, Frightened Rabbit would close main sets with this song, and just where the song is supposed to end, where the album denies you the take off that riff seems to initially promise, the band launches into a heaviness they’ve never flirted with before. So then it becomes Frightened Rabbit roaring against the baser pitfalls of human behavior. Maybe this time it’s not as angled as specifically inward as usual, but even if Hutchison’s turned his biting eye outwards you can’t help but feel that last churning evocation is as much out of fear that he might bear these traits, too, as anything else.
8. “Fast Blood” (from The Midnight Organ Fight, 2008)
Frightened Rabbit has a tendency to pull their album names from song lyrics rather than titles. So, like “State Hospital” with Pedestrian Verse, “Fast Blood” is the one where Hutchison coins “midnight organ fight.” That gives it the weight of feeling like the track that is supposed to clue you into what the album’s all about, and in some ways it does just that. Like so many Frightened Rabbit songs before and after it, “Fast Blood” chronicles the difficulty of navigating human relationships, specifically romantic ones. In some ways, maybe this song skews positive at moments, “And the fast blood/ Hurricanes through me” suggesting a relationship that’s overwhelming in a passionate (not yet unnerving) way, the guitars warm and sensuous in their own way. Of course it’s not long before “this fumble has become biblical” and Hutchison says, “I feel like I just died twice.” But while “Fast Blood” gets at the romantic failings that define The Midnight Organ Fight, it’s not entirely representative of the album musically. While much of The Midnight Organ Fight bears strong indie-folk influences, “Fast Blood” is one of about four tracks on the album that turn up the electrics and favors a much more straightforward indie-rock sound. That gives a muted insistence to the pulse of the guitars on “Fast Blood.” Like its narrator, it’s as if it’s perpetually on the precipice of breaking down, its tenuousness speaking to a weathered desperation, the song’s last gasp equal parts world-wearied and aggrieved.
7. “Footshooter” (from The Winter Of Mixed Drinks, 2010)
If you read interviews with the band about The Winter Of Mixed Drinks, they talk about how they wanted to move away from The Midnight Organ Fight in two ways: depart from their usual song structure of continuously, inevitably building towards a climax, and wanting to record their parts separately. Though it’s true many songs on The Winter Of Mixed Drinks don’t necessarily have that same push to the big conclusion, the fact that they didn’t record live means that these songs represent Frightened Rabbit playing with loading up a song with separate embellishments and overdubs, making a lot of the material become thick and consistently overwhelming (some might say “overcooked”). “Footshooter” is one of the more staid examples, even as it still boasts one of those choruses that manages to be epic without really trying. The relative restraint makes for one of the band’s most interesting arrangements, with “Footshooter” defined by the off-kilter persistence of its drum pattern and Hutchison’s chorus melody. Hutchison’s still playing with his usual mode of self-deprecation, this time fixating on all the stupid things he thinks, says, and does when drunk, and his general tendency to shoot himself in the foot. Even so, there is the hint of growth in “Footshooter.” It’s not just about beating yourself up, but accepting fault by the song’s end. Like a lot of The Winter Of Mixed Drinks, the customary bottled-up drama of Frightened Rabbit is there, but this time maybe it’s overflowing past catharsis and into redemption.
6. “Keep Yourself Warm” (from The Midnight Organ Fight, 2008)
So, about the way Hutchison can sell a line. “Keep Yourself Warm” is the one where he says, over and over, “It takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm.” It’s a lyric that’d feel uncomfortably juvenile in lesser hands, but even though they might still repeat it a few too many times, Frightened Rabbit make it feel complex. It becomes lonely and frustrated and dejected, but also resolved and matured, that even after an album detailing the various ways relationships can go wrong and make you feel terrible about yourself, maybe there’s still reason to strive towards something beyond short-lived flings and temporary solaces. It’s the ending of the song that really establishes this feeling, the way all those lightly-distorted guitars thrash against all the specters of the past outlined here and throughout The Midnight Organ Fight in a way that at once feels sudden and well-earned. “Keep Yourself Warm” completes one of the best three song runs out there, starting with “Head Rolls Off” and continuing with “My Backwards Walk.” They’re bracketed by two instrumental transitional tracks, further emphasizing how they stand alone on the album. As much as I love “Floating In The Forth,” there’s a version of The Midnight Organ Fight in my head that ends here, sweaty and angst-ridden and listless, but also with enough shambolic fervor to finally triumph over all the personal weaknesses that had plagued Hutchison or the listener across the album.
5. “The Woodpile” (from Pedestrian Verse, 2012)
Sometimes you get lucky, and a band you’ve really liked for a long time puts out a new album, and there’s a song on there that’s just so good it rivals all the other stuff you’ve already spent years listening to and attaching memories to, etc., etc. You’ll see from the first four songs on this list that even as excellent as Pedestrian Verse is, Frightened Rabbit will always have a tough time beating some of the unimpeachable classics of The Midnight Organ Fight in particular, especially since they’re a band whose music invites strong emotional connections to be made. That being said, the first time I heard “The Woodpile” way back at the end of 2012, it floored me. It immediately announced itself as one of the best songs the band had ever put out. There was no real chance that anything on Pedestrian Verse would exceed it, but hey, that was fine. And even if it set unrealistic standards, the song was an accurate hint of things to come: like much of Pedestrian Verse, “The Woodpile” feels like a distillation of their past strengths and a step forward at the same time. It soars more than any of the contained epics of The Winter Of Mixed Drinks, without the burden of excessive instrumentation. This has to be thanks to the effortless, impeccable chorus of the song; I don’t know if there’s a week that’s gone by since last year when I haven’t had it stuck in my head at least once. Even as it’s about trademark Frightened Rabbit topics, it contrasts them with some of the band’s most effectively uplifting music. Hutchison described it as “a big, confident rock song about helplessness.” That, in a nutshell, is all you’d ever want from Frightened Rabbit.
4. “The Loneliness And The Scream” (from The Winter Of Mixed Drinks, 2010)
“The Loneliness And The Scream” might rank as the unquestionable #1 on some Frightened Rabbit fans’ lists, and I might wind up in that camp some day. To be entirely honest, while I always liked the song, I’m just new to thinking it’s this good. The moment of conversion came with seeing the band in April, when they closed the night with this. Before that, it had always felt like “The Loneliness And The Scream” built and built but never quite burst into the payoff it seemed to want; call it a victim of the way so much of The Winter Of Mixed Drinks feels huge minute by minute. Live, though, you do get that payoff, the band letting the whole thing loose, a theatre full of fans screaming along to those “oh oh ohs” at the end. For a band that’s used such refrains time and time again, this is the definitive one. Which makes sense, since this song sums up everything about Frightened Rabbit for many listeners. Much of the earliest parts of the song revolve around images of, well, loneliness—not so much about the fallout of the relationship or social anxiety or whatever, but the isolation that lingers down the road. Then comes the other part of the title: “And the scream to prove/ To everyone/ That I exist.” In some ways, you can ascribe that to Frightened Rabbit’s entire career, down to the way their misleadingly shy name contrasts with the magnitude of their sound. It’s the sentiment that drives so much of their music and many of Hutchison’s lyrics, a longing to be acknowledged. All the yells feel different, more triumphant, when you hear it live, amongst hundreds or thousands of fans. At that point, nobody needs to prove anything anymore.
3. “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” (from The Winter Of Mixed Drinks, 2010)
Simply put, “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” is the most unabashed pop song Frightened Rabbit has yet written. Sure, it’s off an album named The Winter Of Mixed Drinks, so there’s still plenty of hungover raggedness to Hutchison’s vocals. With such an effervescent, jangling lead riff though, it feels like a major outlier for Frightened Rabbit, even as the title might imply the expected darkness. Of all things to have influenced the song, Hutchison cites a scene from The Wackness in which Ben Kingsley swims out to sea. “I think he’s trying to kill himself, but he gets so far and realises he’d rather come back,” Hutchison explained to The Sun in 2010. He further elaborated on what the image meant to him on the band’s website: “It’s about losing your mind in order to reset the mind and the body. Forget what’s gone before and wash it out. This is not necessarily a geographical journey, as the ‘swim’ can involve any activity in which you can lose yourself.” In that way, it’s an inversion of a lot of other Frightened Rabbit songs, where the darkness of the lyrics far outstrips that of the music. Here, instead, what can initially be perceived as the darkest of urges gets refigured as healing. As a mode for self-reinvention. Complete side note: Frightened Rabbit have a way with using instrumental transitional tracks that are, first of all, still interesting musically, but also great at creating a flow within their albums. Maybe the best one is the haunting “Man/Bag of Sand,” which is like a ghostly echo of this song from out at sea.
2. “The Modern Leper” (from The Midnight Organ Fight, 2008)
It’s hard to describe exactly the kind of insane reaction a Frightened Rabbit crowd gives when those first few acoustic chords of “The Modern Leper” are strummed. I’d have to imagine that, like me, a lot of people found their way into this band through The Midnight Organ Fight, and the first few seconds of this, the album’s opener, was like the curtain being raised on all the intensity and ups and downs in Frightened Rabbit’s music. In its modest way, and likely because of the personal associations I have with the record, it ranks amongst those great opening moments for me: the groove of “Rocks Off” introducing Exile On Main St., the cinematic harmonica and piano of “Thunder Road” holding all the promise of Born To Run, the way the keyboards of “Everything In Its Right Place” unsettle and welcome you at the same time into the insular headspace of Kid A. They’re the kinds of moments that immediately evoke a world on first listen, but still give you chills on the hundredth because you know what you’re in for. You know how much this artist is about to give you. “The Modern Leper” is lesser known, its chords more understated and less iconic than those examples, but it ranks amongst them. Whether on your headphones or in a venue, they demand a reaction.
1. “Head Rolls Off” (from The Midnight Organ Fight, 2008)
It’s a bit odd, to arrive at this point, after having gone on and on about how well Frightened Rabbit does catharses and epics, and have a more restrained, understated cut in the first slot. Some fans may have grown sick of “Head Rolls Off” by now. It’s one of the band’s more recognizable songs, and maybe a too-obvious first entry point. (It was mine.) Even years on and countless listens in, though, “Head Rolls Off” is the kind of song that at this point is so familiar as to feel like an abstract home you’re returning to, and yet it can still give that feeling as if you’re hearing it for the first time. Taking a slight sidestep from the breakup album themes of The Midnight Organ Fight, “Head Rolls Off” touches more explicitly on death. Throughout though, there’s this sense of being OK with mortality. It begins with a shrug (“When my blood stops/ Someone else’s will not/ When my head rolls off/ Someone else’s will turn”) but immediately turns to assertion—”And while I’m alive I’ll make tiny changes to earth.” With an unwavering propulsion that seems to grow even while never breaking into the sort of climax we’ve come to expect from the band, “Head Rolls Off” seems to be oddly at peace amongst the maelstrom of turmoil that is The Midnight Organ Fight. That makes it all the more fitting of a lead-in into that trio with “My Backwards Walk” and “Keep Yourself Warm.” They all remain fan favorites as well as some of the best songs the band’s recorded. There, in one killer three-song set, is almost anything you need to know about Frightened Rabbit.
Listen to the Spotify playlist here.