I just bought tickets to see Wil Wagner because The Smith Street Band aren’t touring right now. A while back I went to a Conor Oberst gig and overheard three separate people hoping he’d play Bright Eyes material.
Whenever flagship frontmen embark on their own musical endeavours, I’m wont to take it with a pinch of salt. It’s not so much that I doubt the quality of the new, ‘distinct’ material: the proof is in all three of the aforementioned puddings that these things can turn out to be pretty fruitful. Usually I’m just skeptical of the distinction itself. It’s a question of ontology: namely, what’s the difference? These artists are very consciously drawing a line in the sand—but how significant is that line, and what’s it actually separating? Because, let’s be honest, The Smith Street Band pretty much is Wil Wagner; Bright Eyes pretty much is Conor Oberst.
Frightened Rabbit pretty much is Scott Hutchison. And now Scott Hutchison is Owl John.
The Scottish indie-group’s drawling main man has just released a solo LP under that moniker: this is not, strictly speaking, a Frightened Rabbit record, however much it may or may not resemble its progenitor. But that does call for a game of spot the difference.
Let’s start at the base level. Proportionately, Owl John is one quarter of Frightened Rabbit. It’s a pretty fundamental quarter though: Hutchison is, more or less, the keystone of that band. He himself reflected on the importance of the downsize, saying “The process has to be different, otherwise I’m just going to make a Frightened Rabbit-sounding record, which I really don’t want to do.”
It’s surely a challenge for any artist identified with an already-established musical act: breaking out of the pigeonhole and flying the coop, so to speak. And Hutchison would probably love nothing more than for this album to be viewed and reviewed in its own light, without the words ‘Frightened’ or ‘Rabbit’ ever coming to the fore*. In which case he’d almost certainly disapprove of this particular article, which thus far has done nothing more than frame the one against the imposing silhouette of the other.
But these kinds of comparisons are necessarily going to happen: at the end of the day, most of the attention given to Owl John is going to be a spill-over from the Frightened Rabbit pint. So deal with it Hutchison—that’s what happens when you stick your familiar fingers into a brand new pie. We might as well see whether or not it’s all just Rabbit meat.
The album’s halfway mark Los Angeles Be Kind could’ve been a Frightened Rabbit B-side. Probably even an A-side: there are echoes of tracks like The Loneliness and the Scream or Acts of Man in the pacing, structure, and in Hutchison’s distinctly dour lyricism. Why do I start with Los Angeles? Because, at the time of writing, it sat at the top of Spotify’s “Popular Owl John” list. This is probably a symptom of the ‘Rabbit-Owl’ spill-over: most of the people are here for Frightened Rabbit, so respond most warmly to tracks that sound like Frightened Rabbit. And whilst Los Angeles might be the least different to the older material, none of these apples have fallen particularly far from the tree.
The main difference of Owl John, as you might expect from the shedding of three band members, is a decidedly more intimate sonic aesthetic. When the Rabbit does rear its head, it’s songs like Keep Yourself Warm or State Hospital that come to mind. Other moments, such as album highlight Stupid Boy, have The National’s paw prints all over them, whilst the dirtier sounds of Hate Music demonstrate a Grinderman flourish of garage experimentalism.
This is far left of centre as things get, though: a sludgy, digital layer of instrumentation and production bubbling under the surface of tracks like Cold Creeps and Don’t Take Off The Gloves. In the grand scheme of things, the effect is pretty insignificant. Hutchison’s thick Scottish tongue, his dry wit and his soggy slurs, are still front and centre like they always were—and, whether he likes it or not, this is definitely a “Frightened Rabbit-sounding record”.
In Hutchison’s eyes it might spell failure. But even if this LP is ultimately just another slice of Rabbit pie–well, that can’t be anything but good.
*final count= 10 and 14, respectively
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