Though divisive may be a strong word, 2010’s The Winter of Mixed Drinks certainly eked out differing opinions on the direction Frightened Rabbit were heading after the cult success of The Midnight Organ Fight. Following the high watermark of that album was always going to be something of a double-edged sword, weighing up the expectations of their devoted followers against the increasingly obvious mainstream appeal of singer Scott Hutchison’s emotionally-charged, anthemic songwriting.
Whatever your feelings on Mixed Drinks, if follow up and major label debut Pedestrian Verse gets one thing right, it’s in playing to those strengths. Where others at this juncture may feel a need to mask their inherent styles, here we find the quintet fully embracing the core of what Frightened Rabbit are; there’s far less of the polished production and abundant musical layers for sure, but the very nature of these songs, with their chugging bombast and melodic immediacy, ensures that Pedestrian Verse intrinsically feels like a ‘big’ album.
Opening gambit Acts of Man is perhaps the album’s most florid offering, yet its various sojourns never outreach their grasp. It’s a song that unfurls gradually without aiming for the overblown crescendo, whilst still hitting a satisfying and euphoric kick-start. From there, Backyard Skulls, Holy, lead single The Woodpile and Late March, Death March fairly barrel along, cutting to the chase with the propulsive drumming and simple, evocative guitar lines of Frightened Rabbit at their best. There are welcome flourishes for sure, notably the rippling electronics of Backyard Skulls or the full-band chant of Death March, but it’s difficult to argue with Hutchison’s assessment of this being a particularly lean, fat-free Rabbit.
It’s a trait that continues throughout the second half, a qualitative equal of the first, but offering a slightly broader scope. Much of that feels like the product of Frightened Rabbit as a group rather than a vehicle for Hutchison’s barbed confessionals. Midnight Organ Fight offered rustic, frills-free accompaniment whilst Mixed Drinks seemed more a studio record that layered each song after the fact. With the brooding, unfurling December’s Traditions, the plaintive, vocal-led Nitrous Gas and the spiky, rousing finale of Oil Slick, the five-piece sound as if they are really crafting songs from the ground up this time.
With any justice, Pedestrian Verse should draw a line in the sand with regards to Frightened Rabbit’s past. The step back from production values is nothing so regressive as to keep myopic fans of The Midnight Organ Fight blithely content, yet those left cold by Mixed Drinks sheen should find warmth enough in its direct approach to return to the congregation. For the rest of us, it’s the sound of Frightened Rabbit hitting their stride as a band, confident in where they are, whilst paving a path towards ever bigger things.