Friday, December 26, 2008

Keep yourself warm ...

Sooner or later it was going to happen, and I figure that now is as good a time as any to talk about my favorite album from the past year. I heard a lot of stuff that I liked, but The Midnight Organ Fight from Glasgow's Frightened Rabbit was the only album from 2008 that I fell in love with. I picked it up after seeing a couple of very good shows, and listened to it a lot for a few weeks before setting it aside. I picked it up again in mid-Fall, and have been listening to it compulsively ever since. I think that qualifies as a test of a great album. Or, how about the fact that I've come to classify certain encounters in my life as "Frightened Rabbit-esque." Or the fact that I've been trying hard to cultivate a scottish brogue? If these expressions of praise are too nebulous, I'll try to get a little more specific in the following paragraphs.

The album kicks off with a near perfect trio of songs. 'The Modern Leper' sets the tone for the rest of the album: thundering, bass-free drumming, dueling acoustic and electric guitars, and the tortured vocals and gruesome metaphors of singer Scott Hutchinson. "A cripple walks amongst you all you tired human beings/ He's got all the things a cripple's got, not working arms and legs/ And vital parts fall from his system and dissolve in scottish rain/ But vitally he doesn't miss'em, he's too fucked up to care," Hutchinson wails. Lyrically, this is the most emo- thing I've listened to in a long time, but Hutchinson works his ass off to keep it interesting, and he consistently succeeds through the use of transparent metaphor and stark imagery. 

As good as the first track is, the next two are even better. 'I Feel Better' ups the tempo, throws on a hooky, buzz-saw guitar line, and even brings in horns on the chorus to create a blissful cacophany of sound. Once again, though, it's the lyrics that make the song. Emotional repression is the theme this time around, summed up perfectly by the chorus: "I throw away my greys in a pad-locked cage and in a pad-locked room/ Only to be released, when I see you walking round with someone new/ This is the last song I'll write about you." Somehow, Frightened Rabbit's lyrics are able to take tired, cliched pop music fodder and consistently revitalize it into something poignant and electrifying.

'Good Arms Vs. Bad Arms,' the third track, slows things down and introduces a slide guitar. On the chorus, Scott Hutchinson's singing is accompanied by bluegrassy oo's and oh's from his bandmates. Musically, it's one of the album's most laid-back, folk-rock leaning songs. Lyrically, however, Frightened Rabbit continues to twist the knife, and the words here evoke drunkenly violent threats to a former-lover's new partner: "I am armed with the past and the will and a brick/ Might not want you back, but I want to kill him," and "Just roll over boy, don't make me do this," and finally "I am still in love with you, can't admit it yet." Scott Hutchinson's wounded vocal performance, here and on the rest of the album, is one of FR's most powerful weapons. Instead of coming off as whiny, these songs are given the emotional resonance of classic soul music.

The songs that make up the album's mid-section fall along a continuum of good to great. "Old Old Fashioned" uses a jangly, folksy melody and cute refrain to mask a tale of relationship stagnation. "The Twist," a definite album highlight, is driven by a repetitive piano line and background "oh-oho"s, before breaking out into a danceable New Order-style rythm and several more layers of keyboards. It also contains some of Scott Hutchinson's most riveting imagery, "Lift your dress enough to show me those shins/ Let your hair stick your forehead/ Did you blush when our lips touched?/ I can't tell, we are already red," in addition to some of his most self-effacing lyrics: "Let's pretend I'm attractive and then/ It's alright, we can twist for a while/ It's the night, I can be who you like/ And I'll quietly leave before it gets light." The next track, 'Heads Roll Off' provides some respite from the emotional turmoil; with church organs and religious imagery, it delivers a startlingly sincere affirmation of faith. The midsection closes out with 'My Backwards Walk,' a fantastic dirge garnished with harmonica and carried by Scott Hutchinson's desperate vocals and over-the-top metaphors. The song is a powerful rumination on the painful ending of a relationship.  

If 'The Midnight Organ Fight' has one major flaw, it is sequencing, and this comes out in the final one-third of the album. The songs that follow 'Backwards Walk' are all solid, well-crafted, and lyrically engaging. However, the thundering, driving rythms that characterized the first 2/3's of the album are left behind in favor of slower, more introspective ones, and the album loses much of its momentum. That's not to say that the last group of songs don't have strong moments: The pain in Scott Hutchinson's voice when he sings "but I hate when I feel like this, and I never hated you!" on 'Poke' is so acute that it almost stings to listen to. 'Floating in the Forth,' is a beautifully melancholy song that suggests the possibility of emotional healing. The power of these songs would have been easier to recognize had they been sequenced amidst the more uptempo moments earlier in the album. "Who'd You Kill Now?" closes out the album in a fitting fashion: one minute long, with a grainy two-part harmony accompanied by acoustic guitar. "Who'd you push down the stairs last night?" the singers ask, an appropriately direct metaphor, considering the sentiments of the last 45 minutes.

I hope that next year yields an album that I can love as much as this one. I have a hard time finding music that hits me on every level, but I'm confident. There are still a few intriguing things from 2008 that I plan to explore before I can turn the page.

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