What a red herring “The Greys” turned out to be. The first track on Frightened Rabbit’s debut album back in 2006 was all angular guitars and tense energy. It may have set up the tight but disconnected album that followed, but it gave us no indication of where this great Scottish band was going. Their second disc The Midnight Organ Fight melted down the icy edges of its predecessor into a slick puddle, a more wide-open pop sound that worked all the way through. Songs were catchy, spacious, and made room for Scott Hutchison’s vocals, which rose up and stole the show.
Now there’s Winter of Mixed Drinks, which takes the roomier pop of their second album and expands it even further, into dynamic and soaring tracks that are as unruly in their size as they are consistently arresting. In the wrong hands, all this defiant size could seem flabby or excessive. It could come off as bland, monolithic arena rock. But in the hands of a band that seems to have stepped firmly into their own, nearly the entire album comes off as thrilling, original, and pitch-perfect.
At times, the band re-imagines sounds from their previous efforts. “Things” is a weird amalgamation of the tense edges of their debut and the roomy pop of the second record. It grinds along on pulsing distortion and distant rhythms, always threatening to crash into full-on attack mode, but always holding back. That pulling-at-the-chain restraint extends to Hutchison’s yearning vocals. “I didn’t need these things,” he keeps insisting, voice strained but never cracking, wanting but just barely in control. It’s a beautiful song, but also a hugely ambitious surge to start your record off with.
Luckily, “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” floats in on the opener’s wake beautifully. Almost the polar opposite of “Things”, the song is a soft, bright counterpoint to the cool grind of its predecessor. The dripping guitar riff that leads it off, with little more than a tambourine behind it, leaves space for the band to lay a bed of bracing vocals under Hutchison’s croon. But they’re also playing possum, at least a little. The drums fill out, those vocals persist and spread, guitars pick up, and before you know it this is a full-on storm at sea, as Hutchison begins to demand answers. “Are you a man? Are you a bag of sand?”, he keeps asking, and as the song builds it feels more and more like a challenge, one the song buoys you to respond to.
But just when you think you’ve heard the best song on the album, and maybe the best song from these guys yet, they hit you with the massive “Skip the Youth”. The song, which runs over six minutes, feels like an anthem sandwich of sorts. There’s this slow, insistently buzzing build up and fade out, with far-off drums and distortion sounding like clashing industrial machines, charging menacingly up in the mix. But in between that machinated noise, Hutchison takes center stage, as pianos swirl beautifully around him and he pines over his body being “bound to useless youth.” He’s hit a rut, clearly, in young adulthood, but damned if he isn’t pushing forward. When he utters that phrase about useless youth, behind him instruments mobilize. The drums come back into the mix, guitars jab riffs into those flowing piano phrases. It’s all coming back around, and when it does it is huge and beautiful. An army of voices come in, the percussion pounds and clatters, guitars seethe, and it becomes pretty clear Frightened Rabbit aren’t sitting still. They aren’t taking this crisis lying down, and that infectious energy makes the song unforgettable.
Each song is writ at large as all these, but there’s never a feeling of treading the same ground. “Nothing Like You”, though it bears a striking resemblance early on to Radiohead’s “Bodysnatchers”, is churning power-pop, sprinting ahead quicker than anything else here. Though it’s followed by the strange intermission track “Man/Bag of Sand”, it prepares us for a second half that never loses its strength, even as the songs continue to widen and grow. “Not Miserable”, coming pretty late in the record, acts as a nice bookend to “Things”. It employs a similar build-up, and holds off as long as it can, building tension to the snapping point. But here the band gives into its own inertia, drums thunder in and the song bursts with energy, as if only to prove the title’s claim true.
Maybe that is what makes Winter of Mixed Drinks work as well as it does. The expansive, dynamic hooks aside, the album nicely avoids the sad-bastard implications of its title. There’s plenty of drowning in drink here, plenty of self-doubt and melancholy. But the sound of it, the heart with which Hutchison sings, the way he always moves lyrically from stillness to movement, keep it from all being self-involved or navel-gazing. It rarely stalls — though “The Wrestle” comes closest to the shapeless size this kind of rock music can fall into — because it is always moving forward.
For all its size and ambition, the band never sound like they’re stopping to admire their own work, never bedding down in what they’ve created. This stuff is propulsive. It’s got somewhere to go, somewhere away from all the near-drowning that goes on here. It’s winter to be sure, but the only way to get through it is to keep on trudging, which is what Frightened Rabbit does beautifully here. Those mixed drinks, they can warm you up or weigh you down, as the snow piles up. On this album the band always goes for the former, and that warmth extends out to the listener.