Frightened Rabbit - The Winter of Mixed Drinks
Following 2007’s The Midnight Organ Fight can hardly be described as a pressure-free endeavour. Frightened Rabbit’s often stark, heart-on-sleeve, break-up album was voted both album of the year and one of the Scottish albums of the decade in these very pages. But as a highly personal work of singer Scott Hutchison, written in the devastating aftermath of a failed relationship, it was never a work that was ever going to be replicated. Rest assured, The Winter of Mixed Drinks is no Midnight Organ Fight Mk. II.
Hutchison’s current temperament is probably the most important factor of Mixed Drinks' move away from the foreboding shadow of its predecessor. There are few places this is more evident than on opening track Things which seeks to sweep away the cobwebs of the past. “I didn’t need these things...I left them on the floor and ran for dear life through the door,” sings Hutchison defiantly to a steadily rousing backing. It stands as a great riposte to Organ Fight’s bittersweet ostensible ending, Floating in the Forth, where Hutchison promised to shake himself out of his gloom.
Things is followed by lead single Swim Until You Can’t See Land, which also responds to a theme of Organ Fight. Where before Hutchison contemplated the Forth as a potential end to his misery, here a similar expanse of, admittedly metaphorical, water is seen as a test of his mettle. “Are you a man, are you a bag of sand?” he challenges himself, forming a recurring lyrical motif. It doesn’t hurt that such positivity in the face of adversity comes wrapped in one of the Rabbit’s most anthemic choruses yet.
Even by now, it seems obvious that Mixed Drinks is an album poised to break Frightened Rabbit into bigger leagues, but it’s not just that it’s a grander album with a fuller sound. Organ Fight was privy to similar moments of ostentation, such as the smart trumpet accompaniment to self-delusion on I Feel Better. The themes which the band now deal in are equally as likely to ensure they reach a wider audience. Previous anthems such as Keep Yourself Warm were certainly catnip for scruffy young men of a certain disposition, but singing luridly about the pratfalls of one-night stands and ‘gettin’ yer hole’ was always going to put a cap on bringing indie-Mum to the party.
Hutchison’s colloquial, barbed wisdom has certainly been sanded down on Mixed Drinks and it would be remiss to pretend it doesn’t initially feel like the loss of a good mate, crying into his pint but still able to crack the best jokes that only come as a self-defence mechanism at the darkest of times. But like denying that friend a little happiness, to hold it against Hutchison’s superb songwriting reaching a wider audience would be, well, just mean.
If Mixed Drinks does bring a larger audience to Frightened Rabbit, and it seems inevitable, new fans will be able to trace the embryonic stages of their favourite new band back to debut album Sing The Greys as much as The Midnight Organ Fight. Now seen as something of a dress rehearsal before the main event, The Greys should now stand as more of a precursor to Mixed Drinks than anything else. The Loneliness and the Scream lands somewhere between The Greys' title track and Square 9, two songs the band once segued at early live shows. Meanwhile The Greys are name-checked – and dispensed with – on Not Miserable, whilst the theme of measuring your existence by its positive effect on others that plays out in Things seems a direct response to their debut's pathological theme, to avoid human contact at all costs.
Whilst Mixed Drinks’ opening trilogy showcases the breadth of Hutchison’s songwriting as well as anything the band have done previously, repeated listens eke out The Wrestle and Skip The Youth as being even greater. The former is a simple, quite lovely number in the vein of an understated Fast Blood perhaps, whilst the latter is more complex in its structure, beginning with two minutes of cyclical noise that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Can album. The following four minutes then encompass forlorn strings and compelling vocal punctuations before its superb, off-kilter, rousing finale ensures the journey was as worthwhile as the end destination. It’s a mini-epic centrepiece that shows the Rabbits skilfully stretching out of their normal confines.
After such a highlight, Nothing Like You feels deflating. Easily the weakest song on show, it's brazenly FM friendly, too pacey for what it follows and ultimately sounds like The Rabbits on auto-pilot. Plus, for someone who once brilliantly analogised heartbreak with leprosy, lines like “she was not the cure for cancer,” seem ham-fisted by comparison. Inevitably Nothing Like You is the second single to be lifted from Mixed Drinks, that breakthrough seeming a dead cert but the cost apparent.
Thankfully it’s a minor blemish that only hints at what Mixed Drinks could have been before the second half gets things back on track. Not Miserable is another grower that seems to keep on giving with each listen. It’s title and sentiment may have you recalling 10CC’s I’m Not In Love, but it stands as the album's most evocative song lyrically, Hutchison reflecting that “though it’s easier now I will always remember the night that I almost drowned – all alone in the house.” If there’s a song that will free Hutchison from the past, then this is surely it.
The penultimate Living in Colour is a good slice of The Rabbit’s folk-pop sensibilities, which should perhaps have been single number two, whilst finale Yes I Would is an understated send-off that may well pass you by on the first few listens, but patience reaps rewards before you find yourself bathing in its languid beauty. In fact, Mixed Drinks really is an album you need to spend quality time with, memorising its little contours, its freckles and overlooking small blemishes.
For those who have journeyed with Frightened Rabbit to this point The Winter of Mixed Drinks is as good an album as could be hoped, as the newly-expanded quintet teeter on the edge of mainstream success. It’s no sell-out and no ‘just add strings’ indie crossover either. They are simply too self-aware for that to be an issue. Without stoically demanding that they reach again for the high watermark of Organ Fight, and with a relatively sunnier disposition blossoming at its heart, the band have played their cards as well as could be hoped. Frightened Rabbit are that little bit happier. You will be too.