Tiny Changes: A Celebration of Frightened Rabbit's The Midnight Organ Fight
Julien Baker, Biffy Clyro, Daughter, Ben Gibbard and many more friends of Frightened Rabbit all contribute to a vibrant, heartfelt and inventive celebration of The Midnight Organ Fight
On stage, there was often a moment towards the end of a song when Scott and Grant Hutchison would face one another, and Frightened Rabbit would kick things up several notches. The palpable sense of communal euphoria (or was it just a lot of sweat?) as Scott, Grant, Billy Kennedy, Andy Monaghan and Simon Liddell tore through extended versions of My Backwards Walk and Acts of Man is one many have missed a great deal.
It's a lovely surprise then to find it channelled so ably by Wintersleep on this vibrant celebration of The Midnight Organ Fight. Their anthemic rendition of The Twist, featuring a ludicrously exhilarating “big boy Wintersleep drum fill” requested by Scott, is an early highlight of the record, originally intended for release last year.
It’s important to note at this point that each cover on Tiny Changes was recorded with Scott Hutchison involved in the process. This is not a tribute record, compiled after the gut-wrenchingly sad news of Scott’s passing broke last May; if it was, it would likely have been impossible to find anyone willing to approach Floating in the Forth. The Twilight Sad were courageous enough to do so before the song took on immeasurable new weight. An unexpected and viscerally urgent chord progression brings the shadow hanging over the original version’s catharsis to the forefront.
It’s unlikely that anyone will ever do Scott’s songs justice in the way that James Graham has over the last year. I was in the audience last November as The Twilight Sad performed Keep Yourself Warm for the first time on Scottish soil, and the respect, sorrow and love that informed his vocals was humbling to behold, as was the breathtaking empathy of the crowd who raised their own voices to aid him when he became overwhelmed. I was standing next to a friend (also deeply moved) that night who would, months later, bring up Scott’s invaluable honesty in Parliament, before mentioning the Hutchison family’s new charity Tiny Changes, set up to help young people in Scotland struggling with mental health issues.
Josh Ritter’s delightful, banjo-fuelled take on Old Old Fashioned is bound to bemuse a few at first, but that’s part of the thrill of assembling so many Frabbit friends on one record. The tracklist alone shows just how far and wide the two brothers from Selkirk and their companions have travelled, and the connections they were responsible for along the way. Sarah Silverman and Katie Harkin were introduced by Scott, after both opting to cover My Backwards Walk. There’s something bizarrely lovely about the scenario: two strangers brought together by their affection for a song they had both connected with while, separately, knee-deep in the shit.
Said shit is universal, one reason among countless for the warm reception Scott’s songs received all over the world, particularly in America, the home of many of his heroes. Those heroes include Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, whose instantly discernible falsetto can be heard on a hushed, dreamlike version of Keep Yourself Warm that wouldn’t be out of place in a Sofia Coppola soundtrack.
When I think of Scott Hutchison, a single word springs to mind first and foremost: community. That’s what reeled me in. The Midnight Organ Fight has long been the go-to heartbreak record for everyone from Gibbard to Rainn Wilson, but when I picked up my copy, the kind of intimacy Scott described – so all-consuming that its absence left him ‘shrink-wrapped out of air’ – was a little foreign to me.
I was 18, depressed and deeply repressed after a long illness. The world had grown complex in the years I was hidden away, and I was naively stumbling around, trying to make sense of the references, practices and cues that were second nature to old friends I was now intimated and bewildered by. I felt like an anomaly. A small splatter of dirt tarnishing an otherwise pristine windshield, living in perpetual fear (and sometimes hope) of being discovered and then promptly windscreen-wiped into oblivion.
Many artists provide catharsis to their audience by poetically articulating a feeling such as this. There is community in that shared experience. Scott offered this, but – I’m grateful to say – also much, much more. A ‘tunnel to crawl through’ always seemed to be on his mind. This was not apathetic music to surrender to: it was an invitation to take heart and celebrate the warmth, wit, wisdom and curiosity that can be found on the other side of disastrous times. As someone stifling their emotions and dismissing their issues as a defence mechanism, I immediately knew, listening to Scott sing, that I was missing something vital. That openness was worth the risk.
These were songs entirely bereft of pretence that didn’t speak to a specific scene or age group. You could take your Mum and Dad – should they be able to endure the barrage of F and C bombs Scott could be counted on deploying with relish between songs – to a Frightened Rabbit show and they would leave as exhilarated as a long-time fan. Scott’s generosity of spirit coaxed belly laughs, tears, unforgettable chants and dazzling falsetto aerobics from his audience.
No subject was off-limits, as evidenced by Floating in the Forth, and often the unorthodox, deceptively mundane premises heralded the most engaging results. Whether he sang of a lonesome holiday dram, the complications of adjusting to life in Los Angeles or ‘that dickhead in the kitchen / Giving wine to your best girl’s glass’, Scott’s attention to detail and singular ability to wrestle joy or hope from almost any scenario was (and is) for many an invitation to find common ground in unexpected places with unexpected people.
Peter Katis, who recorded The Midnight Organ Fight (and famously questioned the formidable number of swear words included), shares a colourful reimagination of Bright Pink Bookmark. Aaron Dessner, main songwriter for The National and producer of the last Frightened Rabbit record Painting of a Panic Attack, provides tender accompaniment to CHVRCHES’ Lauren Mayberry, who covers Who’d You Kill Now?
Craig Finn – who sang with Dessner, Gibbard and Julien Baker at a New York tribute to Scott last December – offers a reflective take on Head Rolls Off that feels tailor-made for an end-credits sequence where everything hasn’t worked out perfectly, but the cast have made their peace with that. Wilco-esque guitars (fitting considering Scott’s love for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) accompany Finn, who showcases the universality of Scott’s most famous line (‘While I’m alive / I’ll make tiny changes to Earth’) by proving that it loses none of its potency when delivered by a man from Minnesota rather than Selkirk: all he has to do is believe in what he’s singing.
Scott was particularly fond of Baker’s thoughtful, aching rendition of The Modern Leper, which has already captivated the hearts of many. Biffy Clyro’s wildly inventive version of the same track, on the other hand, is an absolute skyscraper. A rollercoaster. Maybe even a monster. The electronics and handclaps added to the second verse are absolutely inspired, and sometimes, there really is nothing quite like hearing Simon Neil properly let loose. Their cover comes across as a genuine labour of love, from a trio of mad scientists.
Scott had a real flair for articulating the inarticulable. Poke beautifully captured the push and pull of heartbreak, and the dizzying bursts of clarity that can arrive in between long, suffocating hazes of numbness and recklessness. Quietly devastating, but also a welcome reminder of our extraordinary capacity to let others in. It’s testimony to Scott’s powers and courage that he managed to capture such a muddled, private feeling so gracefully and uncompromisingly, allowing others to delve into it at will. Daughter’s take is exceptional as it sacrifices none of the original’s intimacy, despite its experimentation.
Elena Tonra's fragile vocal that carries us from ‘If you don’t want to be with me just say / And I will go’ to ‘We can change our partners / This is a progress dance’ is engulfed in unnerving electronics, perhaps representative of the messy voyages onto dancefloors and into the arms of strangers chronicled in Keep Yourself Warm and The Twist. Piano Bar Fight’s sublime, romantic version of the latter concludes poignantly, with a new line: ‘We need human heat.’
Tiny Changes is the sincere and inventive celebration deserved by The Midnight Organ Fight, a record many of us hold closer than any other. Let’s keep singing these songs. Scott’s songs. They’re fucking wonderful, after all.
Listen to: Poke (Daughter), The Twist (Wintersleep), Floating in the Forth (The Twilight Sad)
"I still believe that the piano sound in The Twist is fucking dogshit, but aside from that it’s in pretty good shape...": Read Scott Hutchison's reflections on ten years of The Midnight Organ Fight (from Mar 2018)
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