Clean-cut and fresh-faced, The Fray make unlikely rock stars. In fact, apart from the more dedicated members of their fan club, few would be able to pick out any of its four members in a line-up. The band's sound, on the other hand, is a different story. After the success of their 2005 debut album, How to Save a Life, and in particular the use of its eponymous single in an episode of the television series Grey's Anatomy, The Fray's yearning vocal style and cleverly undulating piano melodies have become an instantly recognisable trademark.
Despite chart-topping success on both sides of the Atlantic, two Grammy award nominations and album sales of 3.5 million, critics have remained less than impressed. These sentiments have been echoed by many music fans, who have written off The Fray's soft-rock sound as "lift music". Certainly, this Denver, Colorado-based outfit don't win any cool points for rock 'n' roll lifestyles. All four members, though still in their mid-20s, are married, and they have made no secret of their clean-living credentials.
However, this self-titled follow-up album marks a change in direction. It was written after an arduous three-year world tour, during which time the band struggled with a gruelling schedule and time away from home. The result is a grittier, more cathartic sound. The current single, You Found Me, describes the dark days on the road when the lead singer, Isaac Slade, was dealing with personal heartache. Its rolling melodies and pensive tone bear a strong resemblance to How to Save a Life.
Enough for Now, a thrumming, orchestral track which deals with the death of Slade's grandfather - another low point during the tour - is similarly reflective; other songs look at the strain the long spell away from his wife while touring put on Slade's marriage. This is certainly darker stuff than before, but although their lyrics often speak of discontent, the music rarely echoes this sentiment, and after a promising start - Syndicate, Absolute and You Found Me are right up there with the big hits from their last album - the piano chords and guitar arpeggios begin to blend into one another.
This has the unfortunate effect of making you feel like you are bobbing about on a pleasantly tuneful but ultimately tepid sea. This is good, singalong rock, and as a result, will no doubt enjoy similar chart success to its predecessor. While there is plenty to enjoy, there is little to linger over, and it's tough not to get the sense that what was once a comfortable groove will soon start to look like a rut for this band.