Say you’ve got a narrowing of the renal artery, from atherosclerosis or fibromuscular dysplasia. The lowered perfusion pressure in the kidney activates the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system, the body’s way of conserving blood volume. Renin is the enzyme involved, and it conveniently enough provides a link—through a chain of activating enzymes—between the liver, the lung, and the heart. All three adorn the cover of Frightened Rabbit’s Liver! Lung! FR!, though the band may not be quite as concerned with the underlying physiology of it all.
Seriously, who knew The Midnight Organ Fight was actually referring to, you know, those visceral structures inside us? Makes you appreciate that there’s something about this band more than skin-deep, an intriguing combination of emotion and left-field imagination. I never knew of Frightened Rabbit until earlier this year, when “The Twist” came up on my iPod and immediately I became a fan. I’ve spent much time with the Scottish quartet’s sophomore album since then, and though I can’t quite place those organs it’s referring to into some cohesive whole, their songs have retained a brittle, visceral power. The band received plenty of critical love for The Midnight Organ Fight, though one can never be too sure how that translates—the album was released in the US in April, and it’s hardly like the group’s exploded. Still, they’re supporting Death Cab for Cutie, releasing a new album early next year, and, to tide newly ravenous fans over until then, have put out a modest live album, Liver! Lung! FR!.
I say modest because the record has a transient, on-the-fly quality—the recording (overseen by Mice Parade’s Adam Pierce) is clean, but retains little of the deep, chiming layers of the studio. There’s minimal introductory chatter, and the band omits three interlude-like songs from their new album (without supplementing from earlier material). But the atmosphere is still charming, and to the (from the sounds of it) small audience this must have been a special event. Local guests, including the Twilight Sad’s James Graham, join the group on a couple of songs, further cultivating the image of Glasgow, like Bergen in Norway, as a warm, welcoming artist’s town.
But more important than the atmosphere and drawing-room charm of the recording, Liver! Lung! FR! makes a pretty convincing argument for Frightened Rabbit as astutely professional. Here is a band that’s ready for a bigger audience—not just because they put out one of the better albums of 2008, but because they’ve softly shown us here that they can remake this material in the live setting. Over mostly acoustic arrangements of his songs, Scott Hutchison draws his distinctive voice through its full range. It’s certainly an arresting facet of Frightened Rabbit’s sound (listen for the payoff in “Fast Blood”, a superlative slow build, in which he hovers forever at the very top of his range). And with the fuller layers of guitar subtracted, as on “My Backwards Walk”, Hutchison draws a new sense of urgency from his sparkling melodies. That song, though it dips at the end into catchphrase, has once again nailed the ungrounded, disconcerting feeling of post-breakup; the soft-drawn, out-of-tune guitars accompanying Hutchison here make that disconnection patent.
Having said that, Liver! Lung! FR!, for all its small-scale charisma, seems a little less than essential. It’s not easy for the group to sustain the long, slow crescendi that lend their albums that crushing emotive quality (though their live approximations reveal distinct shades of loss and ache). And though renditions of “Old Old Fashioned” and “Good Arms vs. Bad Arms” are energetic and even (with Ross Clark’s guest mandolin) jaunty, the acoustic rattle would be better described as ‘intimate’ than ‘arresting’. But what makes this live recording a success despite these differences, of course, is the quality of the songs themselves.
In the end, Liver! Lung! FR! may not be quite as visceral as The Midnight Organ Fight. But yes, “The Twist” still pings pleasure centers, gorgeous in this lighter, piano-backed version. “Lift your dress enough to show me those shins”, Hutchison sings, and a backing group that could be the whole room replies with a solemn “Ah”. Then: “So twist and whisper the wrong name, I don’t care and nor do my ears”. Nor maybe does Hutchison’s kidney or his spleen. But his heart does, and probably, so does ours.