ALBUM REVIEW: FRIGHTENED RABBIT – PAINTING OF A PANIC ATTACK

9/10

ALBUM REVIEW: FRIGHTENED RABBIT - PAINTING OF A PANIC ATTACK

One of Scotland’s most engaging bands, Frightened Rabbit is releasing the follow up to their breakthrough album 2013’s Pedestrian Verse. On April 8th their fifth studio album Painting of a Panic Attack drops in all the usual markets. A number of things have changed since 2013, front-man Scott Hutchinson released a critical praised solo album, Owl John and moved to Los Angeles from Glasgow, Scotland.

Guitarist and keyboardist Gordon Skene left the band and Andy Monaghan and Simon Liddell became full belted members of the band upgraded from their tour member status. In the run up to the new release a nagging question faced Frightened Rabbit, one that confronts many a band that has had a first taste of success. How do you try something different without losing what has been gained on the climb to success? Additionally fans of the band ask the question, will anything following Pedestrian Verse be as fresh and engaging? The short answer is that Painting of a Panic Attack not only meets the high expectations set for it but exceeds the mark. It is a seasoned album that displays the band at the peak of their musical gifts.

Frightened Rabbit was formed in 2003 in Selkirk, Scotland. At first Scott Hutchinson front-man and guitarist intended it as a solo venture but quickly added his brother Grant on drums and Billy Kennedy on guitar and bass. In the early days the band would give out their email address and tell fans they could request free demos. Scott would send biscuits out with the demos and the requests increased. It was not just the biscuits that made the band unforgettable, it was their memorable songs. Since that time Frightened Rabbit has seen ever increasing success. They signed with Fat Cat records initially and then signed with Atlantic records in 2010. 2013 saw the culmination of 10 years of labouring in the fields of alternative music come to fruition with Pedestrian Verse. The album was a critical and commercial success peaking in the UK at #9.

In some ways Pedestrian Verse was the closing of one chapter and the beginning of another. Sick of touring for the album Hutchinson and FR tour musicians Andy Monaghan and Simon Liddell recorded Scott’s solo effort “Owl John” in 2014 in LA. Scott decided at that time to move to LA to be with his girlfriend and the album was filled with ruminations about that move and the results. In many ways “Painting of a Panic Attack” would not be what it is without the “Owl John” excursion. After the collaborative writing approach of “Pedestrian Verse” the solo effort allowed Scott to return to his songwriting comfort zone. In many ways “Pedestrian Verse” and “Owl John” operated as palette cleansers for “Painting of a Panic Attack.”

The release that would become “Painting of a Panic Attack” was started at Dreamland Studios in Upstate New York with the band physically coming together in one local. The band selected The Nationals’ Aaron Dessner as producer. In many ways The National helped introduce Frightened Rabbit to the US. Frightened Rabbit opened for the National in 2013 and the two bands have been close ever since. “Painting of a Panic Attack” was one of the final records worked on in Dessner’s now closed Brooklyn, NY studio. In the creation of “Painting…” one challenge the band had to over come was distance. With Hutchinson’s move to LA the new release would be the first time the band worked on the writing process oceans apart. In the end the separation made Hutchinson deal with his lack of techno music skills. Eventual Hutchinson would decide after much soul searching that LA was not for him and he recently moved to the Hudson River Valley in NY.

The most marked difference on Painting of a Panic Attack is Hutchinson’s return to what he does best, sing about his perceptive take on human relationships. He reveals the ups and downs and the ignominy of romantic upheaval, plumbing the well of demons that haunt his thoughts. This is in contrast to what he attempted to do on “Pedestrian Verse” which was write songs about made up people and places; frequently editing out his personal experiences of love and relationships. Hutchinson has described returning to his old style of song-writing as “Old storms new locations, it’s a new way of putting forth the notion that you had a bad night , that you feel like a fucking idiot at certain points, but then who doesn’t?” The other marked difference on this album is the emergence of as the band likes to phrase it, “treated sound.” The guitars are still there but there is more depth, keyboards and electronic sounds emanated and give a definite richness to the sound without taking anything away. Prior Frightened Rabbit songs would characteristically be a full on bombastic attack; now there is a more measured approach that ends up delivering more. In the end the songs remain clever and filled with the depreciative humour that has endeared the band to its followers.

“Painting of a Panic Attack” is not afraid to cherry pick what worked in prior Frightened Rabbit releases but they also display what has been learned since. The first track Death Dream is identifiable Frightened Rabbit with Hutchinson’s voice reassuringly gliding over the arresting piano accompaniment. The song is dream like with surreal and vivid images. The images are very Freudian and call to mind pictures of dancing with Thanatos as the lyric” you died in your sleep last night” repeats. The lyric continue with “death dreams you don’t forget, even in sleep I tread with care.” The song builds to an awakening from dreams at the end.

On Get Out the band stretches beyond its prior reach with a tech laden drum sound and murky synths. The song is evocative as it mulls memories of love and the ghosts that linger, the lyric “She won’t get out of my heart” seems to plead for a release from the past. The production is aces and the reverb effect on the vocal is a great touch. The song catches you in its web and lodges in your brain.

The folk inspired I Wish I was Sober has a FR signature guitar and drums sound. The song deals with what you would expect from the title, a description of the senses while inebriated, “choking down the gateway drug…I can’t unsink the things I’ve sunk.” Fans will adore this song and again you come to appreciate the reduction of the bombast which actually delivers more for the track. Woke Up Hurting is a synth symphony that counter-intuitive fits perfectly with the tenor of the piece. There is artillery like percussion and the song has a terrific uplifting feel. It is a perfect marriage of lyrics with the accompaniment. The song speaks to hardship and learning from mistakes, the desire to capture perfection that is just out of reach.

Little Drum offers up another departure from the usual. There is a disembodied intro with murky organ and then the song switches over to a really direct minimal sound. The focus is placed on the vocal with the minimalism of the beginning playing off the rich lushness in the later portion of the track, the bellowing horns providing a sense of dread. The little drum of the lyrics is the heart and the topic is the feeling of isolation, examining the time that we waste not enjoying life and lost opportunities. The song is a high wire balance act with a great risk of failure due to it’s complexity but FR makes it seem effortless.

The track Still Want to be Here plays off a few themes including Hutchinson’s struggle with his life in LA which always felt not quite right. There is also the eternal struggle of how you come to grips with the fact that life is not perfect, “the perfect may never exist”, and realizing concessions have to be made if there is any hope for happiness. There are many good things going on in this song. The utilization of Hutchinson’s falsetto and the swirling synths weave perfectly with the rhythm that tethers the whole song delivering a stellar track.

Frightened Rabbit lyrically has always conveyed a familiarity with the doubts and disappointments of life and often hails the small happenings of life over the more colossal events. That ability shows up in trumps on An Otherwise Disappointing Life. The song takes all of the strengths of the band and combines them. The instrumentation is in complete service to the lyric and the two fit together perfectly. The song discusses the desire to walk away from disappointments but insists it is just as important to hang on to the things that are worthwhile. The problem becomes deciding which is which. It also examines the things we use to obscure our disappointments, drugs, booze, etc. Unfortunately the list of disappointments only seems to grow as we age. Hutchinson suggests we need to move on, “I have a long list of tepid disappointments you should burn them too.” It is a deeply moving song.

Just when you start to miss the powerful guitar work of earlier Frightened Rabbit Break arrives with a punchy accompaniment and spectacular guitar that dominate the track. The song suggests that you must choose your battles carefully. The lyrics also advise that being married to rigid integrity can create more damage than the feeling of being right can justify, “…the calm before the aftermath… I didn’t bend and now we face the consequence.”

Blood Under the Bridge Is a song where Hutchinson seems to want to take himself to task for all his shortcomings and flaws. There is an underlying battle between pride and wisdom, “I won’t cry uncle having come so far.” There is a delicate balance between the sombre and uplifting encouragement that makes for a noteworthy track. The gripping 400 Bones is about a relationship where the 400 bones represent two people in bed. The song asks the questions of why we do the things we do, and who do we do them for? The piano and harmonium set the melancholy mood of this love song. Lump Street is a menacing sounding track. Haunted violent imagery describes a rough section of town. The growling synths and fantastic rhythm section are channelling The Cure circa “Disintegration”. The gritty song marries a soaring chorus to a rock ending making for a captivating “do not miss” song.

The final song Die like a Rich Boy is a satisfying satirical selection. The acoustic guitar provides a sweet contrast to the bitterness of the lyrics. Portrayed are the undeserving privileged who with bad life choices bring about their end. These “modern day icons” are excessively mourned by the public as millions of more deserving die and do so unnoticed. The song points out our poor taste in selecting our icons. It is a hymn to the sorry state of the world. “Die like a Rich Boy” is a pointed yet tongue in cheek close to a spectacular album.

Painting of a Panic Attack is an uplifting, esoteric, achingly melancholy and ultimately clever release. In many ways Frightened Rabbit is at the fore front of the renaissance of Scottish Alternative sharing a stable with likes of The Twilight Sad and We Were Promised Jetpacks. The release shows that the band has solved the conundrum that faced them at the end of “Pedestrian Verse”, growing beyond those songs into something even more glorious.

There are no disappointments for fans with the new release. Instead it is another collection of masterful tunes filled with realistic dreamer Scott Hutchinson’s always perceptive insights. The brilliance of the album lies in the contrasts of bright and dark moments that create a crisp picture. With every pass through the album I grow to love it even more. If the fates were fair “Painting of a Panic Attack” should appear on many year end “best of lists”, it is that good. Frightened Rabbit answered the question of if they could out perform “Pedestrian Verse” with a spectacular affirmative.

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