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If you thought you knew The Fratellis, think again. ‘Half Drunk Under A Full Moon’, the Glasgow band’s sixth album, is a kaleidoscopic delight full of surprises, from its flamboyant title track and lush songs steeped in brass and strings to twists on the stomping sing-alongs with which the trio first found fame.
Following the Top 5 success of 2018’s critically-lauded ‘In Your Own Sweet Time’, The Fratellis began work on its audacious follow-up in buoyant form.
“There was a definite sense with the last record that we’d reached the destination we’d always had in mind,” says Jon Fratelli, the band’s singer and songwriter. “We’d broadened our sound by trying out new ideas, all of which I think worked. With this album, the plan was to push those ideas even further. Often, we went overboard!”
Recorded in LA with producer and long-time collaborator Tony Hoffer (Beck, Phoenix, Supergrass), ‘Half Drunk Under A Full Moon’ boasts several firsts for a band that released their landmark debut, ‘Costello Music’, back in 2006. After splitting in 2009 the band reformed in 2012 and have steadily regained their live following thanks to a new generation of Fratellis fans, not just in Britain but abroad, including China, where they have recently found themselves selling out shows.
It is the first album where backing singers were brought in to bolster the huge choruses, and where the same characters from the last record return to stalk a lot of the lyrics. The most significant change though is in the style of the album, the result of a new approach to writing where the desired sound was decided upon first, which in turn dictated the songs.
“In the past, every album had to be a sonic departure from the last, to get me excited about writing again,” says Jon. “This time, I started with threads from ‘In Your Own Sweet Time’, from the song ‘Starcrossed Losers’ in particular, and spun out from there. Immediately, I heard melodies and knew where I was headed.
“These are by far the most colourful songs I’ve ever written. Lots of musicians claim to have that condition where you hear music in colors. I don’t, but I definitely associate certain types of melody with different colors and these ones were multi-coloured.”
Nowhere is that spectrum more apparent than on the album’s opener and OTT title track. Harpsichord, jubilant brass, swirling strings, massed backing vocals and lashing of percussion, nods to Anthony Newley and Tony
Visconti, references to Johnny Depp and Cinderella and a bonkers break in debt to Neil Diamond on which Jon proclaims ‘Yes!’ more than 20 times... in spirit, it’s as much stage musical as it is pop song.
“There’s really nothing that doesn’t make it in there,” says Jon. “How our producer managed to balance it all is beyond me. Some songs you waver on whether to underplay or overplay and on that we went for broke. It had to be ridiculous or not exist at all.
“When a ludicrous lyric pops in my mind, my instinct is to laugh, leave it and expect to replace it later. Rhyming quickstep with Johnny Depp is obviously nonsense, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s simply on the sillier realm of fiction. I could have spent weeks trying to change it and never come close to anything as memorable.”
Balancing the album’s more theatrical moments are songs of sheer pop joy, still The Fratellis’ calling card. Irresistible track ‘Six Days In June’ swings on brass, kick-drum and Jon’s fabulous falsetto backing vocals, while its witty lyrics – “You told me if I kissed you/It’d be easier in the long run” – sound like a party starting. Already you can hear them being howled back in festival fields.
“Six Days In June was the last song written for the album, the missing piece of the puzzle,” says Jon. “I was sitting watching TV one night with my son when the whole song came in to my head. I had to jump up and run to the piano to play it.
“What was I watching? The Han Solo Star Wars movie, which makes perfect sense because I wasn’t enjoying it. It says enough about that film that my mind was entirely elsewhere.”
The quarrelling characters from ‘Six Days In June’ will be familiar to fans of ‘In Your Own Sweet Time’.
“It’s the couple from ‘Starcrossed Losers’, who crop up all over the album,” says Jon. “The theme is essentially a continuation of their storyline - lovers who keep missing each other, never quite getting the show on the road, so to speak. It’s an age-old narrative.”
With specific melodic structures in mind, Jon found the songs arriving so fully-formed that he is hesitant to take credit for them. The lush, stately-paced Strangers In The Street was the most striking example.
“I woke up at 3am, singing the song and, of course, assumed it was somebody else’s,” he says. “A few minutes later I realised it was for me to write. It’s the first time that has happened as blatantly, but really that was the case with all of the songs. I was not in control of them coming, which makes them difficult to explain.”
Jon doesn’t hear country in the gorgeous ‘Lay Your Body Down’, but it’s there. He doesn’t hear David Bowie in the sumptuous, brass and spiralling strings-backed ‘Need A Little Love’, but others might. He calls the boisterous, bouncy ‘Living In The Dark’ “the closest to historic Fratellis”, then hates the description so much he tries to take it back.
What matters to the pedantic musician is that the songs sound on record as they did in his head when he somehow summoned them up. It’s why, for the first time, all of the album’s elements were in place by the time he’d done his demos at home, before taking them to L.A to record.
“It wasn’t enough to just lay down the basics on guitar or piano because I knew exactly how each should sound,” says Jon. “With technology now, there’s really no limit to what you can do by yourself. If I wanted an orchestra, one was at my fingertips.”
Written in a brisk three months in the summer of 2018, but not recorded for a further eight months because, well, Jon had no idea he’d be done that quickly, ‘Half Drunk Under A Full Moon’ proved the trickiest ever Fratellis’ album to produce.
“Usually we spend six weeks in L.A. and that’s enough,” says Jon. “Because some of these songs are so complex, they required another month. Every part had to be in its precise place. One tiny step out and the songs would collapse.”
Back in Glasgow, Jon decided that his own vocals weren’t always enough and called in Roger Manning Jr, best known for his work with Beck, and his friend Mark Lesseraux to help.
“I gave those guys a ton of the vocals because they could rattle them off far better than me,” says Jon. “It’s a backing vocal-heavy record, so they had to be powerful. Whether you can hear them or not, they transformed several of the songs.”
‘Half Drunk Under A Full Moon’ pairs the hooks and hallmarks of The Fratellis of old with the spirit of adventure they discovered on ‘In Your Own Sweet Time’ sent into overdrive.
“We’re taking the pop song format and bending it,” says Jon. “Not as wildly as some, but there’s a definite bend. It’s all about finding those kinks, the spots that can still surprise you. I’ll keep making music for as long as I’m able to bend, if only for want of something more constructive to do with my days.”
'Half Drunk Under A Full Moon’ is released May 8 on Cooking Vinyl
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