For those of you that don’t remember, The Fratellis struck gold in 2007, when their single “Flathead” joined the highly coveted ranks of iTunes commercial jingles alongside The Ceasars, Fiest and U2. Like so many other groups whose songs found immortalization in cell phone carrier ads and sports stadium chant-a-longs, we haven’t heard much from the tartan trio since their spunky debut LP Costello Music (which, according to the band is actually named after a fictional character from the 1998 movie Still Crazy and not Elvis himself, by whose music they are profoundly influenced). Presumably, they’ve spent the last few years lurking in the shadow of Arctic Monkeys, whose rise from Britpop’s worst kept secret to bona fide festival darlings hasn’t left much room for other guitar-driven power pop groups. Not that the Fratellis are bitter or anything.
I guess that’s just what happens when you go full rock nostalgia and wear fedoras on stage and change all your last names like you think you’re the fucking Ramones or something. Eyes Wide, Tongue Tied takes some cues from contemporary indie rock trends, but the giant studio hooks and gang vocals give away the earnest, oblivious spirit of rock revival that rocketed them to a twenty-first century schizoid version of superstardom to begin with. Opener “Me and the Devil” sounds like Spoon…minus the Texan threesome’s signature stark production aesthetic and negative space. So, like, not at all, really. There’s equal parts piano and Gibson this time around, and though the chords are a bit dizzying the arena rock drums and over-arranged “I’m gonna sell this soul of mine” chorus work to cancel out the appeal of the direct songwriting.
“Imposter” confuses as well. The cocktail of chicken pickin’, modern pedal steel slide guitar and steady snare trot paints a portrait of the American old west re-imagined by a Descendents-loving music major at UC Berkeley. That is, until Jon Fratelli/Lawler’s Scottish lilt glides to a perch on top of it all – like if Frightened Rabbit made their own Nashville Skyline album. The similarities to Arctic Monkeys are mostly surface level aesthetic, tied to the lead Fratelli’s voice and occasionally his guitar tone. But in truth, the Monkeys are far more influenced by new wave and post-punk. The Fratellis are more like The actual Monkees: content to churn out frenetic, infectious power pop like “Baby Don’t You Lie To Me” and “Getting Surreal,” both of with feature raucously banged-out piano chords and lyrical structures so rapidfire and unrelenting and verbose that they overpower the audience with catchiness, holding them down and vomiting sugary melodies onto their ears before they have a chance to protest. But hey, a win’s a win, and both tracks stand out in the crowd. The group is anything but Tongue Tied.
From then on, Eyes Wide plays like an alternative rock grab bag. “Desperate Guy” draws from the same crop of canonized influences as other British indie rock bands of this common era, from Oasis to The Smiths to The Fall. The contemporary disco bop of “Thief” would be complete if only Jon would have belted out a high Bee Gees falsetto, but the funky guitar break and synth horns work to pick up the slack. All the baritone saxophones and brass stuffed into “Dogtown” transmute the cut into a bouncy piece of nigh-musical theater. And though the baby boomer classic rock nostalgia that marked their first records has certainly receded, the 1950’s retro vibe rears its ugly pompadour in “Moonshine,” the highlight of which is the sublime Santo and Johnny-style vibrato slide guitar. “Slow” even sounds like a cheeky cover of a doo-wop classic with updated depressing lyrics (“If you want to leave me baby, just do it slow.”)
Eyes Wide, Tongue Tied is a more varied, satisfying listening experience than either Costello Music or We Need Medicine!, but the record is pulled in so many different alt rock directions at once that it’s hard to tell from song to song when the band wants us to thoughtfully appreciate their instrumental nuances and witty lyrics and when they want us to stop our shitty analyses, drop everything, and dance like a goofy silhouette in iPod ad. It’s well done and good fun, but it’s not life-changing or even particularly memorable.