Frightened Rabbit – Tickets – 9:30 Club – Washington, DC – May 31st, 2017
Torres, Kevin Devine
Doors: 7:00 pm9:30 Club
Ever since Scott Hutchison started releasing music as Frightened Rabbit more than a decade ago, his emotionally honest and incisively worded lyrics have been among the project’s most beloved qualities. Over the course of five albums, including their new Painting of a Panic Attack, Frightened Rabbit’s frontman has made poetry of his misery, and still somehow managed to make it sound anthemic—like a triumphant rallying cry rather than a downer. In all of those respects, Painting of a Panic Attack – produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner – is the band’s most accomplished collection yet. “Great songwriters touch a nerve, and I think Scott really touches a nerve with these songs,” says Dessner. “To me, lyrically, this album is a step above anything he’s written before.”
Beginning with the 2006 debut album Sing The Greys, Frightened Rabbit have become one of the U.K.’s most beloved exports. Though originally self-released, Sing The Greys earned the band a deal with indie label Fat Cat Records, who re-released the album and the two that followed: 2008’s Midnight Organ Fight and 2010’s The Winter of Mixed Drinks. Their last album, 2013’s Pedestrian Verse, marked their Canvasback / Atlantic Records debut, as well as their most critically and commercially successful albums to date. In the UK, that LP was dubbed “a triumph” by The Quietus, while The Guardian described it as “a collection of stirring, instant anthems.” Equal praise came from wide swath of U.S. outlets, including Rolling Stone, Time magazine, and Pitchfork, who praised Hutchison’s “lucid assessments of social and emotional turmoil.” The album also helped Frightened Rabbit achieve new commercial milestones, bringing a Top 10 debut in the U.K..
“I think a lot of this new record is informed by reaching a conclusion of sorts with Pedestrian Verse—closing a door on a sound that we came the closest to achieving with that album,” says Hutchison. After taking some time off from Frightened Rabbit to record and tour in support of the 2014 solo album he released as Owl John, the singer returned to his band with the goal of continuing to explore new approaches to songwriting. One important aspect of that evolution has been a shift to a more collaborative process, with all five band members contributing as songwriters.
Painting of a Panic Attack began in the summer of 2014, when the band – Hutchison, his brother/drummer Grant Hutchison, bassist Billy Kennedy, guitarist/keyboardist Andy Monaghan, and multi-instrumentalist Simon Liddell (who worked with Hutchison and Monaghan on Owl John and joined Frightened Rabbit after Gordon Skene’s amicable departure) – convened in Wales to begin demoing ideas. “We started as though we were making an instrumental album,” Hutchison explains. They wrote and tracked approximately a song a day during the course of a couple weeks and ended up with a dozen ideas that Hutchison took back with him to his new home in Los Angeles, where he would tackle the lyrics.
The singer had relocated there from Glasgow earlier that same year, and, although initially optimistic about the move, he was surprised to quickly discover that he felt profoundly out-of-step in LA. “I don’t usually get homesick,” he says, “but I’d never gone so far from home for such a long period of time before.” Being disconnected by friends, family, and especially his bandmates was a stark contrast to his life while making Pedestrian Verse, where the band moved in together, forging a camaraderie and connection that was, in Hutchison’s own words, “gang-like.”
As he worked his way through the Wales demos, Hutchison says, “I was circling what could be a central idea for this record—this sense of not really being sure why I was in LA. But I was still avoiding admitting that that was how I felt.” He sent a few tracks to his brother Grant for some feedback. “Grant was like, ‘Are you really saying what you think here?,’” Hutchison recalls. “Initially I was pissed, but as I thought about it more I realized that he was right. That, out of the desire for this album to be different, I was avoiding writing about the stuff that actually matters to me and the things that were going on with me at the time. I was fictionalizing a bit too much. And after that conversation, a lot of things came into focus.”
The first thing he wrote after that – the anthemic “I Wish I Was Sober” – is sure to become one of Painting of a Panic Attack’s signature songs. “It’s a lonely song,” says Hutchison. “There’s a lot of that on this record, because I was really lonely in LA. And I think that’s what ‘I Wish I Was Sober’ came to represent: that desperate point where you’re like, ‘I have had too much and I don’t have anyone to lean on.’”
Of first single “Get Out” – a tune about a lover you’ll never get over—Hutchison says: “‘Get Out’ is about that person to whom you are completely addicted. They are a drug, and the one that you don’t feel like quitting. They live in your blood and will not leave. I’ve always found it compelling to write about the physical nature of love and loss, rather than the mental aspect. ‘Get Out’ continues that exploration and takes it to a somewhat obsessive level.”
As Hutchison continued to work on the new songs, he reached out to Dessner to discuss collaborating – maybe writing a couple songs together. The two musicians originally met in 2013, when Frightened Rabbit opened for The National on a month-long tour. But Dessner was also a longtime fan of the band, and quickly became the obvious choice to produce Painting of a Panic Attack. “Before this,” Hutchison notes, “we’d never actually worked with a producer who had such a distinct awareness of our catalog and where we’d been as a band. And Aaron was very mindful of that—what we had done in the past and where we needed to go with this album to take us creatively forward.”
Frightened Rabbit arrived at Dessner’s Ditmas Park, Brooklyn studio last August with thirty contenders for Painting of a Panic Attack, and whittled down from there over the course of the following month. As they considered which direction the album should take, Hutchison says it became clear that the best tracks were the ones with the most emotional immediacy. “‘I Wish I Was Sober’ is not the first song I’ve written about being drunk, and ‘Break’ is not the first song I’ve written about being a fuck-up and wishing I wasn’t, but it turns out there are many ways of expressing that,” says Hutchison. “I think people who are fans of our band come to us for a sense of belonging. I know that’s not unique to us, but I really do believe that our music can come to a person at a pivotal point in their life and that we can become this place to consider where you are in the world.”
TORRES knows the darkness. The Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter otherwise known as Mackenzie Scott waits until anything—an idea, an emotion, a memory—gnaws at her, tearing at her fingers and throat until she releases it in song. Her husky voice strains against its human biological constraints like a wild-eyed horse, whispering desperately "Don't give up on me just yet" on one end and yowling about jealousy with unnerving intensity on the other. Following her self-titled debut in 2013, TORRES pushes herself to even noisier extremes on Sprinter, a punishing self-examination of epic spiritual and musical proportions.
A keen awareness of Scott's place in her family and in the world suffuses Sprinter, contributing to themes of alienation throughout. "You're just a firstborn feeling left behind," she sings on the ominously brewing "Son, You Are No Island," which references one of Scott's influences on this record: English poet John Donne's 1624 poem Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. Scott's tortured wailing circles spirals downward around itself, reflecting in a dark mirror the feelings of an adopted child. "Whether it be abandonment, or fear of rejection, or perhaps inability to connect with people, comes down to that fear of isolation, of not being good enough," says Scott. "Those are themes that have cropped up in my personal life, in my writing.”
"Scott escaped the confines of her churning mind in order to find herself by recording Sprinter in the market town of Bridport in Dorset, England with co-producer Rob Ellis; and then at the Bristol studio of Portishead's Adrian Utley. With his guitar riffs and synthesizers lingering in the background like a lowland mist and PJ Harvey's Robert Ellis and Ian Olliver on rhythm—the two fortuitously reuniting 23 years after the release of Dry, and in Scott's 23rd year of living—she crafted a "space cowboy" record. "That's as simply as I can say it," says Scott, who cites inspirations as diverse as Funkadelic and Nirvana, Ray Bradbury and Joan Didion. I wanted something that very clearly stemmed from my Southern conservative roots but that sounded futuristic and space-y at the same time."
It seems like an odd thing to look for in the picturesque seaside green, rolling hills in the south of England, but Scott had never been there before, and as a stranger in a strange land she found what she was looking for: a lost childhood. Sprinter was recorded in a room that had formerly been used as a children's nursery, which combined with the alien landscape fuels the self-searching that roils TORRES' music. "Cowboy Guilt" perfectly encapsulates the contrast of Deep South conservatism with future sounds, juxtaposing George W. Bush parodies with wearing one's Sunday best, bouncing on a mechanically whimsical melody.
After all, it was Scott's Baptist upbringing 4,000 miles away in Macon, Ga. that gave her a voice in the first place. When her parents gave her an acoustic guitar at age 15, after giving her flute and piano lessons before that, she would sing church hymns at the local nursing home to get over her stage fright. As Scott moved away from organized religion toward something far more real and personal ("I still think of myself as quite God-fearing," she says), she ranged farther from home, to Nashville—where she grappled with her outsider status yet again, faced with an insular music scene as hard to break into as if it were surrounded by England's famous hedgerows—and then to New York, where she finally felt another semblance of being at home.
"Nashville was just a bit too small for me," she says. "I don’t really like walking down the street and knowing everyone that I see along the way. I was raised in a small town and there are very special things about it, but I don’t prefer to live that way. I like the chaos of the city."
KEVIN DEVINE is used to living life in the gray. For the past 14 years, the Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter has oscillated between As and Bs: intimate acoustic moments and bombastic rock songs; deeply introspective lyrics and sociopolitical charges; the storm cloud and its silver lining.
Produced by John Agnello (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr.) and released via Brand New’s Procrastinate! Music Traitors label, INSTIGATOR is Devine’s ninth full-length album and comes on the heels of a busy few years: In addition to recording two albums with Bad Books (the indie-rock supergroup he formed with members of Manchester Orchestra), he released the Kickstarter-funded double-album collection BUBBLEGUM and BULLDOZER in 2013 along with the wildly ambitious 2015 DEVINYL SPLITS 7” series with the likes of Brand New's Jesse Lacey, Perfect Pussy's Meredith Graves and Nada Surf's Matthew Caws.
Devine is a master storyteller, and he imbues Instigator - from the biting power-pop of "Both Ways" and “No Why” to the angular, Nirvana-esque "Guard Your Gates" & gorgeously finger-picked “No One Says You Have To” - with intricate details and often-uncomfortable truths. Their meanings are personal, but their themes are universal. It’s a skill that makes both his albums and his live show so alluring: Even when Devine’s writing about the world at large, he’s pointing a mirror back at himself.
That sensibility is present on “Freddie Gray Blues,” a harrowing portrait of the events surrounding the 2015 death of Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police officers. Over haunting acoustic-based talking blues, Devine pays tribute to Gray before digging deep into his own past to reconcile both his privilege and social status as the son, grandson and nephew of NYPD officers. “I don’t think there’s a way for a person in my position to sing that song credibly without talking about why I’m in the room," he says.
And it’s there on “No History,” a string of personal vignettes centered on the September 11, 2001 attacks. It’s a song made much more meaningful by both the din of the 2016 presidential election and current global climate—a cautionary tale that one moment in time has wildly lasting repercussions.
When Devine’s past lives meet his present-day self on the career-defining “I Was Alive Back Then,” the beautiful duality of his art takes center stage: Life is never all peril or perfection, a country ripped apart by war and social injustice or the joy of holding your child for the first time. The extremes might be easier to define, but it’s in the middle where life really happens.
“That’s how I write records,” he continues. “You want to write about real shit. It’s really trying to communicate what I think it’s like to be me—even though I don’t know that all the time—and in the process help people touch a little closer what it’s like to be them, too.” XX
815 V St. NW
Washington, DC, 20001
815 V St. NW
Washington, DC, 20001