Date of Release: 4-Feb-2013
Anthemic and affecting folk-infused music from stalwart Glaswegian indie rockers.
A great way to be exposed to emerging artists, or sometimes see bands that are established in other countries but unknown in your own, is by going to gigs and catching the opening acts. Sometimes the support act is a poorly chosen match for the headliner; sometimes the warm-up act just sucks. Seeing Alice in Chains open for Van Hagar back in the early 1990s did not boost my opinion of Jerry Cantrell and Layne Staley’s crew – their sludgy, needle-drug sound just never connected with me. But once in awhile, lightning strikes and the opening act becomes one of your new favourites.
It wasn’t so long ago that I flew out to Burnaby, BC to see R.E.M. kick off a promotional tour for their Accelerate album. It would turn out to be the first night of R.E.M.’s last-ever North American tour. Also on the bill that night in Deer Lake Park were two support acts – Modest Mouse and a little-known group called The National. Modest Mouse (featuring the incomparable Johnny Marr on guitar) were pretty good. The National were a revelation. I had picked up a copy of Boxer the previous winter and, in the early summer of 2008, was just starting to fall in love with it. That support gig, maybe an hour in length, made me a fan of The National for life.
And so it was that I flew out to the west coast again this year to catch The National as the headliner at the PNE Amphitheatre. Their support act on that cool, drizzly Vancouver evening was a little-known outfit called Frightened Rabbit. Little known to me, anyway. Turns out these Scottish blokes have amassed quite a dedicated fanbase back in the UK. Intrigued, I picked up a vinyl copy of their fourth full-length album (and major-label debut) called Pedestrian Verse back in June and spent some time absorbing it this summer.
Turns out, lightning had struck once again.
Even if you only listen to the music, Pedestrian Verse is a rewarding indie-rock album. Slow-burning tracks like “Acts of Man”, “State Hospital” and “Nitrous Gas” explore the spaces between instruments, giving the guitars and vocals room to reverberate off the walls. Elsewhere, songs like “Holy” and “Late March, Death March” have that anthemic sense of urgency and propulsion normally associated with Arcade Fire. The bass line from “Holy”, seemingly on loan from New Order’s Peter Hook, is a joy to behold. At its core this is a guitar rock album, but with plenty of stylistic and rhythmic variety to keep things interesting.
But what makes Pedestrian Verse exceptional are the lyrics. If you’re a fan of, say, Billy Connolly or Craig Ferguson, you know that the Scots have a wickedly black sense of humour. Usually not cynical or sarcastic, instead they have a sublime gift for commenting on the tragic comedy of modern life from a deliciously skewed perspective. Scott Hutchison’s prodigious grasp of the English language is on display throughout this album. When referring to the adulterous skeletons in some of our closets on “Backyard Skulls”, he sings “Below our homes, underneath the lawns we keep / white silent skulls are smiling at the hypocrisy / backyard skulls, deep beneath the ground / those backyard skulls are not deep enough to never be found”.
Elsewhere, “State Hospital” tells the tale of a poor lass who struggles to cope with the poverty and misery that she was born into. The chorus darkly intones that “her heart beats like a breezeblock thrown down the stairs / her blood is thicker than concrete / forced to be brave, she was born into a grave”. The closing line of “but if blood is thicker than concrete, all is not lost” reveals the defiantly optimistic Scottish soul that yearns to both recognize, and ultimately overcome, adversity. It is very affecting stuff, and little nuances reveal themselves with each subsequent listen.
Sometimes, it pays off handsomely to check out the support acts at music concerts. Trust me – the merch table and the cold beer vendor can wait for later. If you’re very lucky, you might just discover another band as talented as Frightened Rabbit.