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Opinion | Celebrating a midnight organ fight

  • A new tribute remembers the music of Frightened Rabbit
  • The album, Tiny Changes acts as a remembrance of its lead singer, Hutchison, who passed away in May last year

Scott Hutchison performing in Berlin, Germany, in 2016.
Scott Hutchison performing in Berlin, Germany, in 2016. (Photo: Getty Images)

Before dawn one morning in May last year, Scott Hutchison posted a couple of tweets. The first one said: “Be so good to everyone you love. It’s not a given. I’m so annoyed that it’s not. I didn’t live by that standard and it kills me. Please, hug your loved ones." That was followed by another: “I’m away now. Thanks." Then he disappeared from his hotel in a town near Edinburgh, Scotland. His friends and family reported him missing. And a day later the police found his body. He was dead at 36. Cause of death: undetermined.

Hutchison was the lead singer of Frightened Rabbit, a Scottish indie rock band, originally from Selkirk but later based in Glasgow. His vocal style, a jittery tenor, distinctive for its Scottish accent and aching sadness, and the lyrics of the songs that he wrote—most often about sadness and inner struggles—gave the band its unique character. Between 2006-16, Frightened Rabbit released five studio albums, each one of them a masterpiece. But there is one that is truly outstanding—The Midnight Organ Fight, which the band released in the spring of 2008.

It was the second studio album by the band; and it is what you could call a “break-up album", dealing with the lows, the bitterness, and the scars that are left when a relationship that used to be deeply passionate ends. Anyone who has experienced a break-up of that sort (and even many who have been fortunate not to have) can relate instantly to the 14 brooding songs on The Midnight Organ Fight, intensely emotional, yet arena-ready with their glorious grandeur.

The album opens with The Modern Leper, on which Hutchison sings: “A cripple walks amongst you/ All you tired human beings/ He’s got all the things a cripple has not/ Two working arms and legs/ And Vital parts fall from his system/ And dissolve in Scottish rain/ But vitally, he doesn’t miss them/ He’s too fucked up to care." That opening song is the hook with which Frightened Rabbit instantly made me an obsessive fan. More than 10 years ago, after I had first heard, re-heard and re-re-heard The Midnight Organ Fight, I went back and heard the first album, 2006’s Sing The Greys, an equally sad but relatively subdued debut, and then ardently began following their career through the next three releases. They never disappointed.

This month, a bunch of Hutchison’s friends—from both sides of the Atlantic—have collaborated on an album titled Tiny Changes: A Celebration Of Frightened Rabbit’s ‘The Midnight Organ Fight’. It would be inaccurate to call the album a posthumous tribute to Hutchison because it was being put together when he was still alive. It features singers and bands such as The National’s Aaron Dessner; The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn; the indie folk band Daughter; alt-country singer Josh Ritter; actor, comedian and singer Sarah Silverman; and others, all of whom pick a song from the original Frightened Rabbit album and do their version of it.

Tiny Changes is a compelling listen, a kind of remembrance of Frightened Rabbit, and for many of the artists who have come together to make it, that hasn’t been easy.

Hutchison’s vocals and emotional rendering of the original 14 tracks are a tough act to follow but collectively his peers—friends and admirers—have pulled it off. It is a great album. Scottish band Biffy Clyro take The Modern Leper and give it a heavy rock treatment; and Daughter’s cover of another song, Poke, is a lightened-up, easy listening version.

Circumstances have also changed the way the album has turned out. When it began, the project was actually conceived by the band and its leader Hutchison—the others on Frightened Rabbit included his brother Grant (drums); Billy Kennedy (lead guitar); and Andy Monaghan (bass). But its release, coming after Hutchison’s death, has turned it into a tribute album.

It is, ironically, also a good album to start discovering Frightened Rabbit and their discography, mostly because the artists performing on Tiny Changes had the advantage of drawing upon the rich virtuosity of the Scottish band and its frontman. Hutchison’s lyrics and conception of the theme of the album (and that’s true for each of Frightened Rabbit’s other albums) appear to have been a treasure for those covering the songs—whether as a tribute to the original songs or as a reinterpretation of them.

Soon after Tiny Changes came out and I heard it, I went back to Frightened Rabbit’s original album; and followed up that listening session with repeats of all their other studio albums—Sing The Greys, but also The Winter Of Mixed Drinks (2010); Pedestrian Verse (2013); and Painting Of A Panic Attack (2016). Hutchison lent his talent to other projects too during his lifetime: He had a solo album, Owl John (his Twitter handle was @owljohn); and his brother and he were part of a British supergroup, Mastersystem, for which they teamed up with members (also two brothers) of two other UK indie bands, Editors and Minor Victories.

In my efforts to spread the music of Frightened Rabbit, I shared Tiny Changes with many friends. To Glen, a mate who shares the explorative spirit when it comes to music, I sent two versions of a song I really like. It’s titled I Feel Better. I sent him the version from Tiny Changes by Oxford Collapse (an indie rock band from Brooklyn, New York) and the original by Frightened Rabbit. He heard both and wrote back: “Fantastic. (But) I like the original better." Exactly my sentiments.


Five tracks by Frightened Rabbit to bookend this week

1. ‘The Modern Leper’ from ‘The Midnight Organ Fight’

2. ‘I Feel Better’ from ‘The Midnight Organ Fight’

3. ‘Keep Yourself Warm’ from ‘The Midnight Organ Fight’

4. ‘The Woodpile’ from ‘Pedestrian Verse’

5. ‘Swim Until You Can’t See Land’ from ‘The Winter Of Mixed Drinks’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

Twitter: @sanjoynarayan

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