IN FRIGHTENED RABBIT'S first publicity photos, the band—at that point just two brothers, Scott and Grant Hutchison—concealed their faces behind masks. The band has come a long way since then; not only in revealing themselves to the camera, but expanding their lineup (first they added Billy Kennedy, then Andy Monaghan, and on their current tour they are a newly minted five-piece with Gordon Skene). It's all to do with the band's outsized ambitions, which aren't pinned on fame or riches as much as their wish to make gigantic-sounding music that contains gigantic emotions. Almost every one of the Scottish band's songs are bursting at the seams of the heart, with sweeping melodies that straddle the fiercely personal yet warmly universal area between rock and folk and anthem. If Frightened Rabbit are not yet one of the biggest bands in the world, they are, without a doubt, one of the best.
Their first record, 2006's Sing the Greys, was the kind of charming, homespun affair in which lifelong fandom is rooted for those lucky enough to hear it in its obscurity. Their second, 2008's The Midnight Organ Fight, was a surprising and devastatingly emotional breakup record; an album that brought stern men to tears, that had friends saying shyly to one another, "Have you heard this band, Frightened Rabbit? Never mind their name...."
The Winter of Mixed Drinks, their newest album, is a progression of all that came before. If it doesn't contain the bluntly passionate heartache of its predecessor, consider it a good thing for the wellbeing of Frightened Rabbit's songwriter, guitarist/vocalist Scott Hutchison. Mixed Drinks is actually a response to the whirlwind of the Midnight Organ Fight tour, mostly coming out of Scott's post-tour stay in the tiny Scottish fishing village of Crail, near St. Andrews.
"It's exactly how you'd imagine a Scottish fishing village to be," Scott says, triggering all kinds of romantic notions. "I went out there, really just to get healthy again. I didn't consciously decide to be writing songs there; really, the main purpose of being there was to detox after the stupidly long tour. I had no internet and no cell phone out there, so it was very kind of productive. I need to have as little distraction as possible in order to work because otherwise I just won't do anything."
The result is Frightened Rabbit's biggest, brashest album, piled high with songs like "Skip the Youth," a lengthy epic that tumbles through a series of different sections and different volumes, or "Living in Colour," a bashed-out three-chord pop song, or "Things," the album opener which begins as a plaintive hymn but ends up with Scott shouting at the heavens. "To be honest, I didn't purposely change the way I wrote songs," says Scott. "I think I've always been trying to write anthems, if you like. With the big choruses and stuff."
The album also includes the slyly titled "Not Miserable," which is "kind of a joke," according to Scott. "That actually stemmed from people talking to me about how they were surprised that in person I was jovial and easy-ish to talk to. And I was like, what? You expected me to be absolutely bleeding depressed all the time?"
But Scott's time in Crail is best reflected on "Swim Until You Can't See Land," a steady, mid-tempo number that evokes the feel of a long-endurance paddle off the coast, with all its attendant danger and freedom. "I think the idea of the ocean lends itself to the idea of drifting and being alone. It's a big, wide, expansive space, which is helpful to depict a single human trying to find their way back home, I guess. I would never call [Mixed Drinks] a concept album, but there's definitely a theme. This one's more about recovery and stripping things back to the basics of being a human. And the ocean's a big part of it."
If The Winter of Mixed Drinks doesn't immediately strike as deep a nerve as The Midnight Organ Fight, it's clear evidence that Scott is still one of the finest songwriters on either side of the Atlantic and isn't afraid to tackle more universal themes. "When I think back to playing solo shows, I didn't even have the lyrics figured out. I was a lot of times just making them up on the spot. But then it's been five years, so you would only hope that I wouldn't still be mumbling things," he says with characteristic modesty. "I probably do have more to say. There's been a lot that's happened to me since I started doing that shit."