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The Fray

Scars & Stories

(Epic; US: 7 Feb 2012; UK: 5 Mar 2012)

Made for TV

The Fray have always received a bad rap. Much like their soft rock, Adult Contemporary-chart-topping counterparts, there really isn’t much the Denver outfit could do that might earn them at least a shred of credibility. Allowing Grey’s Anatomy to use one of your tracks as its theme song has a tendency to do that. Maybe if the band had decided to lend a few choruses to House, for instance, some of the flannel shirt-wearing, Bon Iver-rocking kids at the cool table wouldn’t be so dismissive all the time. 


Ahhh, but you see, that’s the point: Grey’s Anatomy is too squishy and corny to be a television show that might just have the ability to help out a band who is lacking in the “hip” department. House, on the other hand, offers just enough edge to attract someone like Elvis Costello to cover a Christina Aguilera ballad. Such a metaphor can be directly tied to the music world. What’s that you say? You like Coldplay? Well, OK. Just make sure you cite “Shiver” from 2000’s Parachutes as a song from your favorite era. “Paradise”, from 2011’s widely criticized Mylo Xyloto, would force any so-called music expert to swiftly turn the other way, dismissing your taste as either too mainstream or too uninteresting. 


Such is the case for The Fray’s Scars & Stories, a 12 song pop rock record aimed at pleasing your overzealous ex-girlfriend from college more than, say, the girl you finally deemed cool enough to settle down with. Admit it — you hate this record before even hearing the first few notes. Even so, it becomes harder to justify that hatred as you begin to realize that the only thing you might actually know about The Fray is that it isn’t particularly cool to like them.


And maybe you’re right. Maybe ignorance means nothing in this case, considering how sick we all are of “How To Save A Life”. Admittedly, there are more than enough of those soft rock clichés that pop up throughout Scars & Stories. “Run For Your Life” and “I Can Barely Say” are the first two examples that leap out at any listener. Both ooze generic, cheese-heavy balladry that either showcases exactly how boring the entire band can get, or proves exactly how soulless and whinny singer Isaac Slade can sound when left alone with a piano. 


But we expected that, right? For as much fun as “Over My Head (Cable Car)” was when we all first heard it, therein lay a few more snoozy “You Found Me”‘s than any of us could have ever asked for. The Fray aren’t a perfect band by any means, but it didn’t take that sentence to be written for anybody to understand that. 


Yet that’s precisely what makes Scars & Stories kind of intriguing. “Heartbeat”, “The Fighter”, and “Turn Me On” — the album’s first three tracks — leap out of the stereo in a way that is quite literally unexpected. All three are upbeat and all three exemplify the one side of the band that might make them worth your time. 


“Heartbeat”, the album’s first single, is as catchy, melodic, and memorable as anything you could possibly hear on the radio today. The chorus’s latter half, in which Slade repeats, “‘Cause if you love someone / You love them all the same”, deems itself impossible to forget no matter how much you might want to. “The Fighter”, meanwhile, is the most anthemic the band has ever sounded. It’s also the most cynical and hopeless, considering the “Maybe we were meant to be lonely” refrain that shapes the song into a type of doubtful tone most aren’t used to hearing come from the Fray. “Turn Me On” follows by veering into territory some may have previously thought impossible for this four-piece, as Slade slithers his vocals up and down the verses in a manner that can only be described as sexy. Ben Wysocki’s groovy drum pattern combines with a surprisingly danceable bass line to create the one thing this pop outfit has seemingly never been able to create before: atmosphere.


Unfortunately, the rest of the record is exactly what you might expect. “1961” is a bad kind of simple. The predictable story, with its particularly embarrassing “two brothers under one nation” line that is so awkward it becomes impossible to not wince after hearing it recited. The mid tempo time signature. The repetitively uninteresting guitar riff. The chorus that is so undistinguished, you don’t even know when it comes and goes. And don’t forget the overly-breathy vocals the group have become synonymous with. It’s all here in all its glory, on not just “1961” but also the faux-edgy “Here We Are” and the beige waltz that is “48 To Go”.


Things become only moderately worthwhile again on “The Wind”, a grand, over-the-top gesture that surprisingly works as the guitars hammer on one chord, allowing the tune to bubble and simmer enough to keep your attention. The track is such a change of pace from the rest of the album that its presence is both welcome and appreciated. “Rainy Zurich” switches things up, too, as guitarist Joe King takes the lead vocals, and while it would be nice to report a noticeable change in sound, the differences between the two voices are minimal yet noted.


Differences that are minimal, yet noted. There’s a phrase that applies almost perfectly to Scars & Stories. The Fray never asked to be your favorite band. In fact, the Fray never even asked to be your mother’s favorite band. And while this record continues to prove that even they could probably admit that the latter is way more possible these days than the former, you can’t blame the quartet for veering out into territory they have yet to explore here. Scars & Stories isn’t going to be the best album you hear this year, we all know that. But what we do know now—as a result of the considerably more feisty nature of this record—is that the Fray aren’t planning on going away anytime soon, regardless of what you might think of them, and regardless of which television medical drama they decide to attach themselves to next.


Besides, this is pop rock made for television, remember. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Rating:

Colin McGuire is a columnist and a Music Reviews Editor here at PopMatters, as well as an award-winning blogger and copy editor for the Frederick News-Post in Frederick, Maryland. He has worked in newspapers for five years, writing columns, editing stories and trying to make sure the medium doesn't completely fall off the Earth anytime soon. You can follow him on Twitter @colinpadraic.


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The Fray - Heartbeat
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