The Fratellis Get Festive and Feisty With ‘In Your Own Sweet Time’
Remember those iPod commercials with the dancing silhouettes? Glasgow’s The Fratellis likely grit their teeth at the mere mention of this, as it remains the sole reference point for the band, to most of the world, over a decade later. Nevertheless, the use of the song, “Flathead,” in one such commercial allowed for an early breakthrough, and even led the way to an award for Best British Breakthrough Act in 2007. Curiously, the dancing silhouettes in the ad turned out to be something of a harbinger, as the band emerged in the shadows of the Libertines, along with a host of rather unremarkable and artless knockoffs. In years since, The Fratellis have dished out consistent British indie rock to considerable success, but have never quite stood out enough to shine. Their fifth album, “In Your Own Sweet Time” showcases a seasoned band exploring new musical directions, and finally developing its own signature sound.
The opening track begins with Gang of Four-style guitars and a slick drum shuffle, and launches within the first ten seconds into a distinctly funky mode, which prevails through most of the record. “Stand Up Tragedy” was the first song written for the album, and singer John Fratelli has spoken of how a brand new voice emerged during the creative process, and went on to inspire most of the other new material. Technically this new voice is actually a couple voices in tandem, one in the lower register, and the other on falsetto duty with gasps and yelps thrown in here and there. They’re only vaguely in harmony and only loosely in sync, making for the raw and raucous feel of an impromptu sing-along. There’s a fluidity and swagger to the singing that lends the music a roots rock sensibility. There’s the uncut, immediacy of the original blues, a quality that was largely distilled out of rock ‘n’ roll before the British Invasion, save for some of The Stones’ ‘60s output. In the US as well, the last half-century has seen a stiffening of “rock” and an increasing estrangement from its origins. The original blues-derived form all but disappeared after the “classic rock” era, with vestiges of the sound enduring only in some isolated, southern music. The Fratellis seem to have randomly ended up excavating this aesthetic, and recasting it with a uniquely British flavor. It breathes new life into the rather tired and generic UK indie sound of previous Fratellis efforts, and gives the new record a vitality and character of its own.
“Sugartown” has a Motown feel, with doo-wop backup singers and handclaps. What places it in the here and now is that the guitars are louder and heavier, and the vocals are, well, Scottish. The ‘60s radio hit template, repurposed successfully by bands such as The Noisettes, is a particularly evocative format because of that era’s particular lingering, pop culture resonance. “Told You So” has an alt country tinge, and many of the new songs have a southern rock feel. “Laughing Gas” carries a tune that wouldn’t seem out of place in Pete Doherty’s songbook, if one ditched poetry for pints, punk snarl for country croon, and indie grit for pop shimmer. Every song except for the closing trick is upbeat and festive. The Fratellis often come across like a band that plays dive bars for a dedicated bunch of rowdy, frolicsome locals, and always manages to get girls dancing on tables. Silly riffs, goofy sound effects, and a surfeit of energy give the music something of a carnival vibe at moments. There are plenty of huge, mobilizing choruses. In “I’ve Been Blind,” The Fratellis deftly mange to craft a catchy chorus in an odd time signature, just as they did in “Flathead.”
The album takes a left turn toward the end, veering into uncharted territory. “Advaita Shuffle” is a total WTF moment. It runs on a busy breakbeat of sorts, with what sounds like bongos hammering away. The band is rockin’ out with killer riffs and flashy licks presumably played in full Slash pose, with cigarette and sunglasses. John yells “Hah” sounding as if he’s jumping around stage, doing high kicks, and Kung Fu fighting. The verses feature simultaneous sitar-style guitar fiddling and banjo tomfoolery. Mystic eastern strings join the mix during the chorus, and by the end, Fratelli has incomprehensibly started singing, “She’ll be coming ‘round the mountain.” You’ve got to hand it to the band for originality. All the critics who spurned The Fratellis with lazy Artic Monkeys comparisons have officially been served.
The final track, “I Am That,” showcases an entirely different band. It’s slow and epic, ambitious, reflective and metaphysical. There are drones and more Indian elements, feedback, a noisy mid-song escalation, a choir of revelatory, sky-reaching John Fratellis, and a spoken word segment at the end. The whole affair is very Sergeant Pepper’s. It is unclear whether the choice of this song as the concluding track is intended to hint at the future sound of The Fratellis or just to bring a moment of closure to all the riotous revelry that preceded it. Whichever the case, it’s an entirely unanticipated and considerably intriguing direction.
Some of John Fratelli’s lyrics are enigmatic, for instance in “I guess… I suppose… “ in which he asks, “Why does only pretty rhyme with city, what a pity.” Right… Perhaps it’s a Scottish thing. More often, the new songs are made up of trite, saccharine, Luby Duby lyrics that read like Hallmark valentines for high school freshmen. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; after all, the Beatles’ early songs were quite the same. “Starcrossed Lovers” is a work of, let’s say, Shakespearean ambition — and there’s surely a teenage girl somewhere who thinks it’s ever so cute. There are plenty of songs about girls, and it is in the silliest and raunchiest moments that the band sounds most in its element. “Indestructible” begins with “See that girl walking out amongst the fireflies,” and develops into a litany of whooping cat calls, “Krakatoa / Eiffel Tower / See how she gets busy in the magic hour.” By the second chorus, the repertoire has expanded to, “Prince of Darkness / Chairman Mao.” At this point, anyone who ever doubted the genius of this band may finally rest assured; “Chairman Mao” settles it.
On the more serious side, many of the record’s lyrics deal with the theme of persistence in the face of a strained relationship, and express concern for both time lost and time needed. Both “Told You So,” and “I Am That,” feature the line, “Time just slips.” In “Laughing Gas,” Fratelli sings, “So darling, bring out the laughing gas / You and I know this joke soon will pass,” and goes on to declare, “In your own sweet time / You’ll find that all your words will rhyme.” This line lends itself to a meta interpretation, as the Fratellis seem to have taken thirteen years to discover their own voice. Nevertheless, the new album finds the band trying on new clothes and dancing about, and the result is amusing, entertaining, and intriguing. Where the band will go from here, only time will tell.
“In Your Own Sweet Time” is available March 16 on Apple Music.