The Fratellis are back, toting a vibrant, typically tune-rich new album, Eyes Wide, Tongue Tied. They’re also back from a year-long tour. Another one.
Nine years on from the release of debut album Costello Music… eight years on from winning the Brit Award for Best British Breakthrough Act… Seven years on from Costello Music finally exiting the Top 100 after 83 weeks in the charts… Six years on from recording second album Here We Stand in their own freshly-purchased Glasgow studio… Three years on from returning after a break in which frontman Jon Fratelli released two side-project albums (one under the name Codeine Velvet Club, one a solo joint) and releasing third album We Need Medicine… and zero years on from the last time ‘Chelsea Dagger’ was lustily sung by the crowd at a sports event somewhere in the world (as global event-sized anthems go, only The White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’ rivals the ongoing ubiquity of the The Fratellis’ deathless 2006 Top Ten single)…
… after all that, the trio spent much of 2013 and 2014 gigging internationally. The momentum, again, still, was with Jon (vocals/guitar/piano), Barry (bass) and Mince Fratelli (drums).
“It was the first time we’d played Russia,” says The Fratelis’ singer and songwriter of their most recent world tour. “In a way it was that same merry-go-round we’d done before,” adds this laidback man who, for all his songwriting and frontman skills, cheerfully admits that his self-promoting skills are so lacking he “couldn’t sell a black cat to a witch”. Luckily the infectious magic of the songs on a three-album-deep back catalogue do the PR heavy lifting for him.
Still, even Jon’s default self-effacement allows that, “it was nicely surprising and kinda fortunate that we were able to go and play – and play for so long. We got a year, all over the world, out of We Need Medicine. Which is pretty good going.”
That’s some understatement. There aren’t many bands who, a decade into their recording career, can sustain a self-made profile that manages to be both “cult” and “commercially vibrant”. And Jon admits that, last year, he learnt to value that fact anew.
“It was probably the first time that I really appreciated being able to tour like that.”
Such was the speed of the band’s breakthrough, “we were able to do that really quickly when we first started. We thought it was normal that you’d instantly have an audience – I guess because we had nothing else to compare it to. We assumed you could play constantly; so much that you actually wanted a break from it,” admits the leader of a band whose formidable live reputation was captured in the concert DVD Edgy In Brixton and the American tour documentary The Year Of The Thief.
“It’s the easiest and the best thing in the world to go and play your guitar for people. So we got a year – and if we’re lucky, we’ll get another year.”
Eyes Wide, Tongue Tied makes that a cert. The Fratellis’ fourth album is a 11-song tour de force, recorded in Los Angeles with Tony Hoffer (Beck, Air), producer-architect of both their debut album and of Jon’s solo album Psycho Jukebox. Almost as soon as they came off the road they decamped to LA. And the ever-rigorous, ever-prolific Jon promptly ditched most of the songs he’d written a few months previously.
The only songs that survived are the first two on the album. ‘Me And The Devil’ is like a great lost James Bond film theme, opening proceedings with an atmospheric sweep.
“Hah, people have said that before about stuff I’ve written,” Jon says of the 007 reference. “It has definitely got some drama,” he concedes. “There are certain chord structures you can only describe as dramatic. They just evoke… something. I was gonna use the word spooky, but don’t put that in.”
The other holdover is ‘Imposters (Little By Little)’, a song that’s not afraid to, well, twang.
“I normally demo things in the house, and I use very straightforward descriptions, and I’m sure that one was called ‘Rockabilly Demo’. But I think Tony took it away from being straight rockabilly. All the elements of it are definitely rockabilly and country, there’s no getting away from that. But he definitely added an element of… I don’t want to call it electronica,” Jon says with an audible wince, “but there’s a lot of little synth and drum-machine ideas going on in there, which I would ever have known (a) how to do, or even (b) had the idea.”
‘Rosanna’ is another intriguing melange – at heart, a classic country song, but one flecked out and built up with the sound of woozy strings and layers of backing vocals.
Jon nods. “Mmm, I won’t deny the fact that my sensibilities definitely head in that traditional direction. I have the odd moment where I branch out,” he chuckles, “and I feel bold! But that sort of traditional songwriting thing, I don’t find it boring at all, or confining. It’s always got enough going for it to keep me engaged. And it probably always will.
“But as soon as Tony came on board the writing was easy,” he adds. “I can’t remember writing more songs than that in such a short space of time.”
Why work with Hoffer for a third time?
“I just felt we needed somebody to direct us. And when you do that, you have to be completely open to being pushed and pulled when somebody decides to push and pull you. We felt like we were floundering a little bit,” he readily admits. “And also, maybe it’s a personal thing but I was really looking forward to have somebody else deciding almost everything.
“So he picked the songs – which meant us losing songs we really liked. But it just seemed the right thing to do. And I still think that. It was probably the easiest record we’ve made.”
‘Dogtown’ is a case in point. It sounds like early Seventies Stevie Wonder covering The Beatles’ Come Together.
“Another one that wrote itself,” shrugs Jon. “I’d made the solo record with Tony, and it was really obvious on that that he was always looking for you to weird things up a little bit – whether structure or melody or lyrics. He was always looking for that something extra, and so ‘Dogtown’ fitted that bill.”
‘Baby Don’t You Lie To Me’ stands in adrenalised counterpoint. It’s a glam tune with an ineffably Fratellis-shaped swagger. And it, in turn, is different again from ‘Desperate Guy’, a motoring, driving blues with a cracked vocal from Jon. Not that he can recall putting something different into his singing in the studio.
“If I was to concentrate on these things, I would probably notice that there’s some angst – more than the odd moment,” he acknowledges. “Which is just odd because at that particular time I didn’t feel any angst in the slightest!”
That’s his line and he’s sticking to it, even when discussing the final song. ‘Moonshine’ rounds things off in a drifting, bluesy mood.
“I love that song. I double-, triple- and quadruple-tracked a million vocals on this record, and there’s a lot of expression in ‘Moonshine’. And to double-track something with a lot of nuance and expression just takes an age to get it perfect. But it does round things off nicely. We’ve got no shortage of rock’n’roll songs, so it was just nice to finish quietly.”
It all adds up to a muscularly tuneful, sonically vibrant album – one that should make another planned year’s worth of touring a whole new adventure.
“When we listened to the mixes recently I remember smiling uncontrollably. It’s the same feeling I get when I see my son, who plays drums and who is utterly, utterly obsessed with music. I was getting glimpses of that feeling you got when you first started playing – and when I put this record on when we first got it back, I had that same feeling: wow, look what we did. It’s really basic and inarguable when you get that feeling.
“But also, to be honest, Barry, Mince and I get it every time we go out and play,” affirms Jon, his passion for performing as unquenchable as his ability to writer a killer tune. “On stage every night, it seems recaptured. So it seems unending, really. You walk on, no matter how terrible the day’s been, and you’re back to being that excited 17-year-old. And if that keeps going,” he smiles in conclusion, “we’ll keep going.”