Third time’s not the charm for The Fray

By Chris Shores

It’s been three years since The Fray released an album, but the Denver quartet hasn’t changed all that much.

Facebook

The Fray infiltrated radio waves in 2006 with singles off of “How to Save a Life.” Three years later, its self-titled album was just as strong, with a one-two punch of piano and falsetto that sent shivers down the spine.

But now in 2012, with its latest release “Scars & Stories” less than a month old, it seems The Fray has plateaued. There’s no surprises here, no signs of growth nor any sense of adventure.

Frontman Isaac Slade would disagree with this appraisal. In an interview with The Denver Post, the 30-year-old described the album as a conscious effort of increased sincerity.

“The first and second records were good, but they were 100 percent honest maybe about 75 percent of the time,” he said. “I was racing between being a nice guy and falling apart inside. So in a way this record’s like a, ‘Hello.’ I’m naked up there. It’s who I really am with all my scars and everything.”

But if there are scars, it’s hard to tell where.

There are times when Slade and co-writer Joe King seem on the brink of something big. In “Run For Your Life,” Slade’s voice slides across a beautiful instrumental arrangement as he sings: “One of you never woke up / And you laid your body down of the floor / You’re desperate to hear her footsteps again / But this house is on fire, we need to go.”

Whatever moment existed is erased within the next 20 seconds. The song takes a sudden turn into a tacky chorus, complete with backing vocals that echo Slade’s lyrics: “Run for your life, my love/Run and you don’t give up/It’s all that you are and all that you want/I will be right behind.” There is no complex emotional scarring evoked here, just the album’s cheesy cover art of four men in t-shirts and jeans bounding earnestly across grassy plains.

It’s even worse in the song “48 To Go,” a supposed travelogue that somehow made its way “from Denver to California, by way of Mexico” onto this album. It’s another song ruined by a campy chorus; one can, with great ease, picture the quartet driving down an open highway, hands out the windows, singing, “We’re two down and 48 to go!”

In some ways, The Fray had this coming. Its first album had the hit singles, and everyone sang along. Its follow-up work had enough depth to keep fans satisfied.

How could “Scars & Stories” single “Heartbeat” ever really stack up against “Over My Head”? And while “The Fighter” and “I Can Barely Say” impress, they sound as if they could be unused songs from 2008 recording sessions of the self-titled album.

There’s no denying Slade’s addictive singing voice, the guitar combo of King and Dave Welsh or the solid percussion work of Ben Wysocki. There are times when the band picks up the tempo in a desperate attempt to build momentum. But The Fray always succeeds more in the slow, somber moments when each piano keystroke seems to resonate through the air.

In “Munich,” Slade’s powerful vocals – falsetto and all – are matched in intensity only by the accompanying orchestral arrangement.

Then there’s the track “Rainy Zurich,” which just may be the best song on the album. Backup vocalist King gets the chance to take the lead on this love ballad and – just like on the track “Ungodly Hour” off “The Fray” – he dazzles in his performance.

It’s followed directly by “Be Still,” where piano beats pulsate against Slade’s unwavering voice. The track is slow and haunting, the kind of song one would expect to be the norm on an album named “Scars & Stories.” The only problem is that “Be Still” is the album’s final song – the last chapter of a strange journey that in some ways feels like it never really began.

A deluxe version of the album – complete with five bonus cover songs – is available on iTunes. For anyone wondering what The Fray would sound like as a 1990s hip-hop group, the experience is provided in a cover of the Fugees’ “Ready or Not.”

The Fray also produced its own versions of “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, as well as Annie Lennox’s “Why” and Emmylou Harris’ “Boulder to Birmingham.” The Boss himself wrote the final track, as The Fray covers Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia.”

For listeners who purchased the deluxe version, the bonus tracks may improve the overall experience. But for everyone else, “Scars & Stories” doesn’t bring a lot of new things to the table. It’s mostly good music, but it’s nothing that The Fray hasn’t done before.

Chris Shores can be reached at [email protected]