Friday, February 24, 2012

"Everything is black and white and grey..."

 The Fray - Scars & Stories
Epic Records, 2012
3.5 stars

Seven years ago (shit, that makes me feel old), The Fray burst into the mainstream music scene with How to Save a Life, an album that spawned a slew of popular radio singles and pretty much immediately made them the posters boys for the type of melodic piano pop that served as the soundtrack for shows like Grey's Anatomy. That association was a blessing a curse for the band, as it pretty much immediately skyrocketed them to stardom but also caused a lot of people to write them off early on. I thought How to Save a Life was a solid record, not a great one: I loved all the singles ("Over My Head," "How to Save a Life," "Look After You," "All At Once"), and a few of the album tracks ("Vienna," especially), but overall, it was a record I felt I outgrew quite early, and judging by the fact that the band's album sales have been dropping with each release, I probably wasn't the only one.

Despite this, The Fray have quietly become one of the most dependable bands in mainstream pop-rock, releasing a self-titled record three years ago that not only had one of the best lead-off singles of that year ("You Found Me"), but also a slew of terrific tracks, especially the closer, "Happiness," which has since become a favorite song of mine. With their third (and arguably best) release to date, The Fray make no attempt to reinvent the wheel, but they come up with their best set of songs to date and with an album that feels decidedly more mature and unified, both in sound and theme. The album's biggest triumph comes in the form of "Munich," a sweeping display of power balladry with a immense chorus. The song contains elements of many of their previous songs, but also adopts a wider array of influences (with U2's presence being the most palpable), and producer Brendan O'Brien makes it sound as huge as it should. I never felt like O'Brien was the right fit when he worked with Springsteen, but he may just be the perfect match for The Fray, as he brings a more definitive rock edge in their sound and makes the band sound bigger, better, and more muscular than they ever have on record. Look no further than first single and album opener "Heartbeat," a driving rocker which sports one of the best hooks I've heard all year, or "The Fighter," where the album's increased emphasis on guitars is perhaps the most evident.

"Run For Your Life" is yet another killer single from a band with a history of them, while "The Wind" juxtaposes beautiful verse melodies, distant backing vocals, and a truly gorgeous falsetto release. I've always liked frontman Isaac Slade's voice, but he sounds better than ever on this record and especially on this song, making it one of the absolute best moments of the record. Similarly breathtaking is "I Can Barely Stay," the album's obvious centerpiece ballad and the song most destined to become a soundtrack staple. O'Brien outfits the tune with an army of strings that are massively appealing, but I almost wish he'd just left the it alone, since I'm certain it would function just as well in a stripped down format, just Slade on piano and vocals. That's only a matter of preference though, and the strings give the song an undeniably yearning and epic feel. Guitarist Joe King takes over vocals on "Rainy Zurich," and much like "Ungodly Hour," the song he sang on the previous album, it's a highlight, with a pleasant downpour of pianos and guitar accents forming an evocative background.

In between the ballads and ready-made radio songs, The Fray experiment a bit with more tempo driven, guitar reliant rock songs, and although the results are somewhat mixed and these songs don't end up being the best moments of the album, they do give it a nicely paced flow. How to Save a Life had great singles, but suffered from a drop-off of quality between those and the album tracks, which were basically just less interesting versions of the hits. Luckily, that's not the case here: "Here We Are" wouldn't have been out of place on the last Switchfoot record, while "48 to Go" is almost begging to become a road trip rocker, and "Turn Me On" is good on record, but sounds like it would be absolute dynamite in a live show, with a chorus ready to be shouted by a venue full of fans. Meanwhile "1961" felt relatively unremarkable until I listened to the lyrics, which tell the story of two brothers who find themselves on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall, unable to reach each other. "But it won't be the same again," Slade sings on the song's refrain, his voice breaking into a lilting falsetto in such a heartbreaking manner that the song worked its way into my brain more and more with each listen. The record closes with "Be Still," a lullaby of a piano ballad that is carried forth by a keyboard that delays and echoes through an empty space, joined only by ambient strings, to haunting effect. As it should, the focus stays with Slade's voice until the end, and even though it isn't quite the closer "Happiness" was, it ends the album with a stark sense of finality.

Scars & Stories came together during an extensive period of traveling that the band took prior to re-entering the studio. They wrote over 70 songs for the project, and the record represents the very best of them, songs that only depart slightly from the band's established musical style, but songs that are informed by world issues and experiences. As a result, this material feels distinctly weightier and more mature than previous efforts, and the songs feel more like they are part of a single journey or arc. As the album's throwback artwork implies, The Fray set out not to make a collection of singles, but a full album, and the accomplishment of that goal is rather easily their best record to date. Landing somewhere between the piano pop of Jack's Mannequin and the increasingly classic rock driven sound of Augustana, Scars & Stories is the sound of a band that is growing and improving with each record, and I think someday, they're going to make something that's really great. With this record and the last one under their belts, they're well on their way.

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