The Fratellis have entered that awkward career midpoint for bands, where the tension between doing what comes easy to them and trying to expand their musical palette causes inevitable problems.
In The Fratellis’ case, what comes easy to them is sweet, tuneful rock n’ roll that pounds away cheerfully enough on the surface but has a slight melancholy to the vocals and chord progressions that gives it some tougher, juicier flavour underneath. Their biggest hit, “Chelsea Dagger”, isn’t really like this: it’s just straight-ahead, upbeat rock music. But right from their first album, tunes such as “Flathead” and “For the Girl” hid a slightly sour core underneath the guitars-and-drums surface, which came across to fans like me as a strange tension and can only be described as beautiful.
Their last album, In Your Own Sweet Time, had more songs in that upbeat-melancholy mode, such as “Sugartown” and “Laughing Gas”, which really worked a treat. They didn’t stray too far from the usual formula, which didn’t win them any great critical plaudits or commercial success. But it satisfied long-term fans such as myself: not every album needs to be revolutionary, and sometimes an extension of the usual modes that make a band work is all that’s required for a 40 to 50 minute album.
Half Drunk Under a Full Moon, it seems to me, is an attempt to branch out, perhaps inspired by their midpoint career crisis. But there is a real awkwardness to these attempts, a sense of chucking different instruments into the mix just for the sake of it, or to try and stir things up enough to provide some much-needed inspiration.
The album starts with a very Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys collage of keyboards, pounding bass drum and maracas that sounds almost like a pastiche of “Wouldn’t it Be Nice”. And we all know that Pet Sounds, along with Sgt. Pepper, is the reference point for any band wishing to branch out into more adventurous musical territory. So this pastiche doesn’t come across as inventive, or funny, but merely a little desperate. The song later evolves to include rather un-Beach Boys like strings and vocals, so it is ultimately its own beast. But the tone of desperation is set by its opening, and the lack of melodic inspiration of the song’s verses or choruses fails to rescue it from this tone.
Elsewhere, there is lots of 60s psychedelic-era style production, again as if the band is trying to swing into its Pet Sounds/Sgt. Pepper’s mature musical phase. But the swing doesn’t have any sense of fun to it, which was crucial to both of those classics; it feels like psychedelic sound effects are chucked in for the sake of it, rather than as a launching point for unbridled creative renaissance. The Fratellis sound closer to The Rolling Stones in their psychedelic era, rather uncomfortable and unsure of themselves—although The Fratellis don’t have any songs up their sleeves as strong as “Ruby Tuesday” or “2000 Man” to rescue them.
It seems no coincidence to me that “Oh Roxy” sounds exactly like The Stone Roses in its chiming opening—again, it sounds like a pastiche, this time of “Waterfall”—because The Stone Roses were so heavily influenced by the psychedelic era themselves. So “Oh Roxy” sounds like an imitation of The Stone Roses imitating Beach Boys/Beatles—it sounds like an imitation of an imitation. Again, the synth that soon breaks into “Oh Roxy” sounds like none of those bands, so it sets the song down its own path. But again, the song is not strong enough to recover from such a pale imitation of other band’s former glories in its opening, and the sense of the band’s desperation returns.
It’s not all bad: “Action Replay” has a certain grandeur to it, as well as a reaching for the melancholy (though not the upbeat) sweetness of the band’s former glories. “Strangers in the Street” is an intriguing update of Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night”—though again with production too reminiscent of a pale imitation of Pet Sounds.
Generally, though, to these ears the songwriting efforts seem pedestrian and below the band’s usual hit rate. The wind seems to have gone out of their sails, there’s a sense of coasting.
Who can really blame them after such a miserable year-and-a-bit? The wind has gone out of the sails of many, many artists, and good music has become rarer to find.
So here’s hoping The Fratellis, and the music world in total, can correct their course.