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Frightened Rabbit, ‘Pedestrian Verse’ (Canvasback/Atlantic)

Frightened Rabbit
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: February 05, 2013
Label: Canvasback/Atlantic

Scotland routinely breeds some of the most pure-at-heart songwriters around. It also routinely breeds some of the most self-conscious songwriters around. They are often the same songwriter. Why this is the case is unclear: Chalk it up to a quirk of the national character, or perhaps all the nice whiskey. Regardless, the isle’s more famous alumni supply undeniable evidence of a long, proud tradition of artists filtering their bleeding hearts through a distancing filter, from the exactingly arch storytelling of Belle and Sebastian to the dramatic boredom of the Jesus and Mary Chain to Teenage Fanclub’s exquisite dioramas of emotion. Even Mogwai’s instrumental epics imply a sadness and rage too deep to be adequately conveyed by mere words, compiled on albums with names like Happy Songs for Happy People.

Frightened Rabbit fit snuggly into this national tradition. They’re the sort of earnest, eager-to-connect-with band whose lead singer wants to save your life and will eventually either marry an actress or get way, way too into 20th Century composition. This is not an inherent criticism. When this sort of thing is executed poorly, it’s the bane of many people’s existence, but when it’s done well, it’s often the most important music in other people’s lives. But Frightened Rabbit are a distinctly Scottish group of earnest balladeers, and this is their saving grace.

Sonically, the Selkirk quintet take their cues from the ringing guitars and heightened urgency of U2 and the Smiths, along with a healthy dose of lived-in Neil Young warmth. They will follow that harvest moon. But lyrically, frontman Scott Hutchinson has been studying the stained napkins of their countrymen in Arab Strap, who gained a minor amount of fame for barroom vignettes about how everything is just complete shite. Like Strap’s singer, Aidan Moffatt, Hutchinson has a keen eye for crushed dreams, and the petty annoyances that fester into grand concerns. This pissy attitude helps temper his tendency to throw his arms around the world; and his tendency to dwell on the dark side while shouting out to the heavens keeps the music’s life-changing sweep just this side of grandiose.

Pedestrian Verse, Frightened Rabbit’s fourth album and major-label debut, is filled with passages where Hutchinson tries to outthink his heartache, or shrug it all off by implying that at least he’s no less fucked than anyone else. (“Holy” is the rare song that calls out someone for acting self-righteous while guiltily admitting that acting self-righteous sometimes feels great.) He has an ear for vivid imagery (“Backyard Skulls” deals with failures that won’t stay buried) and pointed scene-setting, evinced by the offhand reference to “Saturday’s uniform for the fuck-me parade” on “State Hospital.”

“Late March, Death March,” meanwhile, is an in-a-big-country battle cry with no shortage of quotable lines, but let’s restrict ourselves to just one, the opener: “I cursed in church again / The handclaps all fell quiet.” The song goes on to examine how Hutchinson’s evaporated belief in a higher power mirrors his dead relationship: He knows that neither make him feel anything anymore, but decides he might as well keep going through the motions, because it’s what he’s comfortable with. Then something, perhaps all the rising action and oohs and upward guitar strokes, convinces him to quit being so sentimental and cut his losses. (Fine, one more line: “There isn’t a god / So I save my breath.”) As far as public declarations of atheism go, it’s a good sight more humanistic than the smug broadsides typically offered in this vein by, say, Ricky Gervais or Frank Turner.

Major-label debuts for treasured indie acts are often fraught affairs, but Verse, which was co-produced by Brian Eno associate Leo Abrahams, feels as warm and loose as a night with a bottle of Dewar’s. This is the first album the quartet wrote as a full band, and they sell the drama like never before, from the layered harmonies and keyboard swell of “Backyard Skulls” to the hushed, reverent keyboards of “Acts of Man” to the insistent drive of “Holy.” Of special concern here is Grant Hutchinson, a drummer firmly in the mold of U2’s ageless Larry Mullen, Jr. — he can disappear into the background when needed, but typically prefers strident, militaristic builds that gives these songs a sense of purpose. Unfortunately, those seem to be the only two modes he can go for, which means that the band often sounds stuck within a handful of rhythmic patterns, always building to that inevitable swell.

Frightened Rabbit’s best material rivals brothers-in-brood the National and Arcade Fire, and even their B-level stuff is better than that of most acts working in this vein. But unlike those leading lights, these guys don’t have the pop instincts to throw in the occasional punk scrappers, chamber-folk interludes, or disco rave-up to keep things from getting monotonous. Without such necessary change-ups, the drama can wear you out. No matter how sharp Hutchinson’s words, you wish he’d order another round and fall back for a minute.

Fortunately, albums are just the starting point for big-hearted groups like this. These songs have traditionally thrived on homemade mixtapes — or, now, playlists. And boy, do they have a gem for your next — Please Consider Sleeping With Me — compilation. “The Woodpile” is loaded with massed chiming guitars and galloping drums that seek to crack the sky, paired with words that insist you make your way to Hutchinson’s quarters immediately. It’s a sly encapsulation of his band’s charms: Frightened Rabbit would definitely seek transcendence if they weren’t so horny and grumpy all the time.