Sunday, March 3, 2013

Something is Rotten in the State of Scotland

What is it about Scotland that causes its bands to be so morose?  There must be something about the breeze that rolls in from the harsh moors that puts a chill over its denizens, because there's another band doling out its unique brand of melancholy around every corner.  There's Camera Obscura, whose catchy tunes underpinning lovelorn tales of woe are a solemn comfort for any season.  Belle and Sebastian have been churning out their bookish songs about outcasts and isolated youths for almost two decades now.  And you don't even need to dig under the layers of distorted guitar in The Twilight Sad's songs, the despondency is right there in the title.  Of course, this theory works much better if you ignore Franz Ferdinand, a bunch of Scots whose music comes packed to the corners with exuberance (it's the year 2013, so most people do ignore Franz Ferdinand).

Frightened Rabbit, another member of the squad of sadsack Scottish songsters, returned a few weeks ago with their 4th album, Pedestrian Verse.  They're no strangers to traveling down into the muck for their song subjects, most famously in "The Modern Leper", the opening track on 2008's The Midnight Organ Fight, which uses leprosy as a catch-all metaphor for mental illness, addiction, etc.  In the four and a half years that have passed since the penning of that song, the band's sound has changed slightly -- trading in their former ragged and ramshackle nature for more polished and expansive sonics -- but their hangdog worldview remains.

Many have said that if The Midnight Organ Fight was like a novel in album form, then Pedestrian Verse more closely resembles a collection of short stories.  Like a great short story collection, Pedestrian Verse has a thematic through-line that carries from song to song.  "Oh, there's something wrong with me," lead singer Scott Hutchinson explicitly sings on one song, but it's hard not to miss that pervasive attitude in all 12 tracks.  The album does such an effective job of conveying that sense of something being broken inside of you, something rotten within, even if you don't know what it is.  Each song contains anxiety and a sense of unease that invades your ears and permeates throughout your body.  You can't put plaster on a shattered bone, the album claims, and makes clear that this ache is not one that is a quick fix meant to subside any day now.  With songs like "Dead Now," the album exists in a world where the universe is against you, but you're also against yourself.

If Frightened Rabbit were only capable of producing this lyrical doom and gloom, it would become a suffocating listening experience.  Fortunately, they are smart enough to match these grim stories about the downtrodden to rousing songs with meaty guitars.  It is certainly not a wheel that they've invented, this "sad lyrics, ferocious instrumentation" technique, but the use of it in Pedestrian Verse creates an even larger sense of vitality and desperation.  Plus, for all of Hutchinson's morose tendencies, his real power as a lyricist comes from the fact that there's a glimmer of optimism buried deep beneath the surface.  There may not be a promise of positive change, but there's always the hope of it.  The album ends, perhaps fittingly after all of the moping, with the line, "We've still got hope so I think we'll be fine/In these disastrous times, disastrous times."  As much as it often may seem so, all is not lost.

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