Everybody -- the lonely lover, the struggling artist, the dumped, the victorious warrior, the moderately successful but aging indie rocker -- needs an anthem. On The Winter of Mixed Drinks, Frightened Rabbit's third LP, the band stuffs an album full of anthems to introspection, confronting issues of spirituality, success, and aging.
The band has grown to a quintet since the release of The Midnight Organ Fight, and so has the band's sound grown. Although it is not immediately recognizable as a concept album, songs on Mixed Drinks evoke musical and lyrical themes that resonate throughout. The second track, “Swim Until You Can't See Land,” one of the more striking songs here, builds subtly from the plucking of guitar to full-blown orchestration with thumping percussions. The thrilling music is placed against Frightened Rabbit's typically cathartic lyrics; within the refrain, the song's title is repeatedly chanted before asking, “Are you a man or are you a bag of sand?”
These lines may be interpreted as depressing or world-weary, but on the contrary, they are invigorating; it is an anthem to mortality, a call to demonstrate human bravery by staring death in the face. Later, on the seventh track, “Man/Bag of Sand” reconstitutes this chorus into a soundscape of eery samples and fuzzed guitars, echoing the sentiments in a darker mood, exemplifying the texture that unifies the album.
The group also seems to be drawing influence from other contemporary performers to expand its sound. Many of the tracks on Mixed Drinks are subtly backed by the constantly whirring loop of percussive tapping or grinding guitar or other less identifiable sounds. This effect has been used prominently by artists like Panda Bear and El Guincho, and now any number of acts who are moving from the traditional instrumentation of drums, bass, two guitars toward more electronic fiddling and production techniques. It does not necessarily sound electronic in the hands of Frightened Rabbit, but it does provide a foundational layer of sound that may not be readily apparent within the mix of instruments. On “The Wrestle,” the ghostly hum is often covered by stronger sounds, but it keeps the song in the realm of the other-worldly that Frightened Rabbit seems to explore in its layers of thoughts and ideas.
Although the album is listenable and even uplifting at times, no songs readily stand out as particularly important or poignant in the way that “Keep Yourself Warm” or “Old Old Fashioned” from The Midnight Organ Fight do. This may be partly due to the shift in sound. As the band explores new territory with its music, it becomes less oriented toward the pop-rock format. But also, as the band continues to dig into issues of identity, longing, and mortality, it may be that the members are just now discovering their truest musical direction with greater, more innovated works waiting to emerge.
Ditching the “live” method of recording that hallmarked Frightened Rabbit’s 2008’s sophomore release Midnight Organ Fight, 2010’s The Winter of Mixed Drinks is described by vocalist/guitarist Scott Hutchison as “a real studio effort. Everything has been separately recorded and that’s the way I like to make records.” Mixed Drinks follows a fictional protagonist, possibly male, through the highs and lows of a breakdown. Kick-off single “Swim Until you See Land” finds the Scottish lads toying with a more polished production as the song swells into a chant-along “are you a man or are you a bag of sand?”