Live Show at St John-at-Hackney Church, London by Frightened Rabbit
Following the release of their new album, there’s been some concern that Frightened Rabbit may have lost the integrity which gives their urgent, earnest songwriting its appeal. Worryingly, Pitchfork labelled the Scots’ latest effort Painting of a Panic Attack lacking in “the levity and humour” for which songwriter Scott Hutchison’s brand of self-contempt is so beloved. In the music industry flooded with guitar bands, it is easy to become semi-disposable – and it is largely Frightened Rabbit’s literary lyrical style which distinguishes them.
It is true that this record feels formulaic when compared to ardent breakthrough The Midnight Organ Fight, and perhaps even a little less sincere. This could be attributed to Scott Hutchison’s romantic contentedness. The singer relocated to LA in order to live with his girlfriend in what for once in his songwriting life seems to be stable if not untroubled relationship, thus removing the artistic bedrock of heartbreak from which the previous albums have been mined. However, Hutchison’s lyrics about this transition, from straightforward yet pleasingly morbid ballad ‘400 Bones’ to the reflective ‘Still Want to be Here’, are some of the most imaginative and mature to be found in any of their back catalogue. It seems more to be the case that, having enlisted producer Aaron Dessner of The National, the Rabbits have lost a little of the acoustic energy which underpins Hutchison’s cogent and nuanced delivery so well. However, with this slicker production, Frightened Rabbit have gained a welcome brooding, pensive texture, even if their governing formula has become more apparent.
As for a lack of levity, this claim can be thoroughly dismissed in light of their playful approach to performance. The church setting, too, apart from being wryly appropriate for the rapturous reception, provides an extra element of humour. Midway, Hutchison kneels to apologise not only for his own sins but those of the audience, gleefully aware of the irony of singing “clutching a crisp new Testament, breathing fire/will you save me the fake benevolence, I don’t have time” in such a setting. Perhaps the most exquisite moment comes when, during set-closer Keep Yourself Warm, Hutchison takes to the pulpit amidst dry ice and lasers. Perhaps tonight’s triumphant silliness arises out of a sense of safety– as Hutchison acknowledges early on, his listeners have resisted the “pressure to move with the times”, and it takes little to persuade this audience to enjoy themselves. Accordingly, tonight’s energy is derived in part from the excitement of a dedicated fan base who have not had the opportunity to bawl out these neglected ballads in over three years. Despite the gig being in London, far from Scotland and the US, there is a genuine sense of homecoming.
That is not to say that the gig is perfect. Although irrelevant in this instance, the performance’s ability to seduce new listeners is limited. The technical production is inconsistent, with the lyrics obscured by throbbing guitars, and so what makes this band so unique is unapparent to those unfamiliar with the material. In a set saturated with anthems, the expansive choruses and earnest instrumentals would become repetitive in this hour and a half performance without sublime lines such as “How can I talk of life and warmth/When I’ve a voice like a gutter in a toxic storm?” to entice. Furthermore, by filling the set with enormous songs, the Rabbits risk becoming tedious. The gig lacks the emotional troughs which authenticate peaks – although with such convivial stage presence and the almost unconditional love the fans (who have been supporting this slow release to fame for a decade), it hardly matters.
Overall, this is a celebratory concert imbued with a humour and silliness it is difficult to capture on a recording. For the British fans – whose numbers seem to be dwindling following Hutchison’s relocation – this is something of a bittersweet celebration as the gruelling American tour dates vastly overshadow the three played in the UK. Although certainly at the peak of their artistic and showmanship capabilities, the sense of Frightened Rabbit as a small band who belong to their fans is slipping slightly, for better or for worse. Perhaps, these shows may be a finale for the FRUK contingent; but a worthy one nonetheless.