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At a time when the legitimacy of artists in nearly every circle of the musical spectrum is in question, there’s something quite striking about how up-front and unambiguous the songwriting of Frightened Rabbit has been across their small but qualitative body of work. A broken heart is worn proudly on their plaid sleeve, gently weeping as the unmistakable burr of Scott Hutchinson spares no detail on his inner-most anguish. It’s guided them through four LPs to date, including the future-classic 2008 LP The Midnight Organ Fight.
There is, however, an inevitable degree of predictability when it comes to what to expect from Frightened Rabbit records – even when it comes to a Frightened Rabbit song in and unto itself. Some might see this as a level of consistency that most bands would dream for. If anything is clear on the band’s fifth LP, however, it’s that they’ve no interest in a holding pattern. Their business may still be company-loving misery, but Painting of a Panic Attack sees the Glasweigans recalibrating and shifting focus to the outer reaches of their sound.
While the end result may not reveal something quite at the level of the aforementioned Organ Fight, it still shows that the band is willing to learn and to expand its horizons – something a large number of their peers have failed to do on subsequent follow-ups to important albums.
The element of space and the element of distance are both significant factors of Panic Attack from a sonic standpoint. This stems from both the arrangement choices of the band and the production work of The National’s Aaron Dessner. Each camp is interested in the discovery that comes with exploration, and while that was certainly a factor of their predecessor LP (2013’s Pedestrian Verse), it’s shifted here to a primary focus.
Take the stunning, swelling opener Death Dream, for example, which marries post-rock guitar shimmer with a persistent, reverberating piano line. Eventually, Hutchinson shifts into a second-person narrative for the song’s refrain, as he and his bandmates sing out “You died in your sleep last night” ad infinitum. It’s here Hutchinson detaches, promptly fading away into the shroud of the instrumentation, which already feels as though it has built up some ways away.
Elsewhere, Hutchinson’s brother Gavin serves as the percussive foundation of Wish I Was Sober, beginning with faint floor-tom rolls and eventually driving hard into the speakers as the crescendo builds. Dessner’s production, too, also allows for subtle inserts and a creative, liberal use of layering – indeed, you might not even notice the saxophone on Blood Under the Bridge until a couple of proper listens.
Not every song leaves as lasting an impression as the aforementioned highlights, or obvious single An Otherwise Disappointing Life. Still, even a Frightened Rabbit album at its worst will more often than not trump a dozen other indie-rock hopefuls at their best. Panic Attack is another thoroughly engaging and smartly-paced record from a hive mind that still buzzes and bursts with creativity.