Just months after their debut album, the charmingly saturnine and boozy Sing the Greys, found American shores, Glasgow’s Frightened Rabbit return with The Midnight Organ Fight , recorded under the tutelage of National and Interpol producer Peter Katis. Frightened Rabbit may still be marked first by intense, bassless strumming and singer Scott Hutchison’s pretensions to being a poor man’s Adam Duritz, but the collaboration with Katis polishes their sound without making it too un-punk. Midnight Organ Fight waxes surprisingly majestic, and its hookless, driving songs about broken relationships and drunken melancholia fit nicely into Katis’s indie-rock framework, sure to please those who obsessed over Alligator and Boxer not only for Matt Berringer’s wounded growl but his band’s accordingly aching, cavernous accompaniment.
The lads in Frightened Rabbit seem to appreciate the unfortunate history of the ballad in pop music, from the Scottish narrative poems set to music that thrived in the Appalachian mountains, which was the wellspring of American folk and bluegrass, to the power ballads of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s that defined the stadium-sized sadness of Bon Jovi, Poison, and their ilk. Frightened Rabbit grasp at the original description of the ballad without completely ignoring its recent incarnations. Songs on Midnight Organ Fight could have been composed sitting on a dirt floor; they may contain a rustic quality, but they rock with a big-city, post-industrial passion.
“Old Old Fashioned” and “The Twist,” which recall ancient folk dance numbers imbued with electricity and pathos, display the most obvious influence of Frightened Rabbit’s European ancestors. The former casts a moment of homey, radio-tuned frolicking, as Hutchison wishes only for “the soft, soft static and the shuffle of our feet.” “Twist” is darker, taking place on a crowded, anonymous dance floor, as the simple joy of dancing becomes a primal need for “human heat.” These two songs exemplify the experience of Frightened Rabbit: nostalgic for a past never actually enjoyed and frustrated by a present that can’t live up to its own promises.
Midnight Organ Fight allows few glimpses outside the prison walls Hutchison constructs of teenage lust, existential anguish, and alcoholism. But the album is not as gloomy as it seems. Hutchison does have jokes, even though he sounds like he’s crying when he tells them. “I’m armed with the past and the will and a brick/I might not want you back but I want to kill him,” a lyric from “Good Arms vs. Bad Arms,” is the kind of relationship squabble Hutchison’s lines capture perfectly. What might seem like braggadocio coming from the mouth of a rapper just feels like deadpanned self-pity on “Keep Yourself Warm”: “If we have a hormone race/I’m bound to finish first.” Hutchison’s lyrics are not as razor-sharp poetic as the rants of Berringer of Isaac Brock, but they are sung with enough neck-bulging sincerity to endear. And Katis’s musical ornaments are like candles in a dreary room: twinkling keyboards, splashes of guitar distortion, well-reverbed and eerily buried backing vocals.
At 14 songs and nearly 50 minutes, Midnight Organ Fight is a bit draining to hear all in one sitting. Its best songs, such as opener “Modern Leper” and “Keep Yourself Warm,” play on one basic rhythmic and melodic combination before kicking into sonic and emotional overdrive. But Hutchison and his bandmates reward patience as well as repeated listens, and they deserve credit for unearthing a unique chunk of the Scottish heart, raised on equal parts American punk and traditional folk and bleeding beautifully.