Frightened Rabbit at the Showbox Market

I love this job. I get to go deep into the music and lyrics of a never-ending flood of bands and records and live shows. There’s something really amazing happening all around us, right now, if you take a moment to look around. We’re living in a Renaissance of new songwriting, new bands, and new songwriters emerging hourly who are reshaping music. I have a huge list of bands to talk about, the latest being Frightened Rabbit.

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When I’m working, when I’m in the dark of a theater experiencing a band in this new era we’re living in, I’m invisible. The massive sound flows around me, and the audience, like wind. When the music starts it’s no longer about memes or trends or marketing, it’s no longer a commercial thing. It transforms the venue into a place where music is language, language music, it is all there is, all that matters. Music. Lyrics. Bodies pressed in close to the stage, moving together to sound. The blending of many things into one thing. It’s a place of escape. And of renewal. The lights and the smoke and the flexing of the floor as hundreds of fans move in unison to the heroic sound. It’s about the energy and the heat released. For a few hours, I’m invisible. For a few hours, all I can think about are the songs and the lights. Music becomes tangible.

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Back at my desk after an important show, I have some things to untangle as I write about what I’ve seen. I’ve had “State Hospital” (Atlantic Records, 2012), the latest EP from Frightened Rabbit, on my desk for weeks, staring at me. Having the band playing Seattle woke me up. I decided to see the show, and to write something about each.

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“State Hospital,” is like a small collection of misfit songs assembled in one awkward place, and something of a distraction. The real place to begin with this tour and this band must be “Pedestrian Verse” (2012, Atlantic Records), their latest full-length collection and their crossover to the “majors” (moving from Fat Cat Records to Atlantic). Much of the evening’s song selections, a massive river of light and sound, came from “Pedestrian Verse.” The songs flow together like a book of poems, a metaphor the band uses in their aesthetic and LP artwork. There’s a bookish theme that runs throughout the work of this band.

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Getting inside the songs on “Pedestrian Verse” is a dark journey. This is the real thing, real Scottish literature set to dynamic music. And like the twentieth-century Scottish resurgence of poetry, nostalgia is nowhere to be found in songs like “Acts of Man,” “State Hospital,” “December’s Traditions,” “The Oil Slick,” “The Woodpile,” “Late March, Death March,” (all played live). None of these songs would work if it were not for the range this band has musically. That must be an exciting feeling, to know you can take the stage and take your songs wherever you want them to go. These are journeymen musicians who read each other well on stage, driving each song with Scott Hutchinson’s poet’s voice and guitar.

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I’ve often wondered about whether the Scottish people ever wished they had their own island, rather than sharing their space with other peoples, with invaders. Theirs is a literature of borderlands, imaginary lines drawn on the Earth, fought over on the page and on the land. So many invasions through the centuries, so many invaders, bringing so many languages and customs and religions. It’s the kind of history that makes a culture of storytellers. Just to remember. Stories are a way to make sense of confusion. Stories are resistance.

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Because they’re a cool indie rock band on tour, you probably think I’m wandering too far afield talking about things like centuries of history or national identity when talking about the songs of Frightened Rabbit. Take a look at the lyrics in “Backyard Skulls.” It’s an archaeologist’s song, an historian’s song if there ever was one: “All our secrets are smothered in dirt, underneath paving stones/Lying waiting to be told/Some stay hidden, while some get found/Like our long lost soul, like a stone beneath the ground…” A song about a long-lost cultural soul built around a shimmering organ. You think I’ve gone too far talking about invaders on Scottish soil going back to the Romans. “The ancient encounters with foreign skin/All but perish by now, guess you can’t erase the grin from those/Backyard skulls, deep beneath the ground…” I’m just reading the book. It’s all there, modern indie rock band or not.

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Borders. I keep coming back to borders when I listen to “Pedestrian Verse” and “State Hospital,” more than with their impressive earlier records (“The Winter of Mixed Drinks,” “Sing the Greys,” and “The Midnight Organ Fight”). Borders evoke identity and jurisdiction, security and conflict. Whether it’s about national boundaries or personal relationships, this is songwriting about borders in all our lives. I also don’t think this band’s reach would be what it is without the charismatic presence of Scott Hutchinson. Part poet, part actor, guitar player, songwriter, and all performer. When Hutchinson takes the stage, the heat rises. Tradition and modernity personified, on stage and on the page.

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Maybe it’s the ever present bristling, edgy hum of resistance to outsiders in Scottish history and especially literature, which means the smallest invasions are never really forgiven, that even ancient history still shapes modern Scottish identity and popular culture. Poetry is always part of popular culture. From the university. From the street. I think these are the forces that make this band’s songs so compelling right now, so popular, in far away places like the Pacific Northwest. The world is shrinking. Even personal relationships are withering under the pressure of minute by minute, second by second electronic invasions and embarrassments. We live under siege. We each carry (and defend) a thousand borders with us in our cell phones. It’s always the poets that help us reset our hearts to what really matters. “Pedestrian Verse” is a record with poetry at its center. The world we live in today forces us to endure new invaders every hour, every minute. These songs explain some of the suffering, some of the cost.

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My only complaint about my evening with Frightened Rabbit is with the low energy of the opening band, The Twilight Sad. They seemed to me to be a huge mismatch with the waves of energy from Frightened Rabbit. Much of the sound The Twilight Sad brought to the show seemed to be coming off a MacBook. Their set was short and their energy dispersed. Perhaps in another venue, on another night, they would have a more commanding voice. Whatever they were trying to say, I think it missed.

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Overall, it was an evening of energy. Frightened Rabbit is a band in ascendancy. They should seriously think about releasing a live record from this tour. Seeing them perform is to see and hear new depths in both their new work and their established catalog. You also have to admire a culture that gives rise to so much poetry and so much desire to resist. An indie rock band can redraw the lines of national identity as much as any poet or novelist can. More lines on the page, and lines on the map. More heart and less head, to reverse a line from “Late March, Death March.” The poet is the heart of the people, expanding the definition of borders, the winners and the losers, the petty limitations, the daily invasions, and sometimes, even the heroic small acts of ordinary people bold enough to record in simple language what builds us up, and what tears us down.

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