Friday, March 14, 2008

Welcome To The Frames

With the success of the (great) film “Once” and now an Oscar in hand for Glen Hansard for the song “Falling Slowly”, perhaps US audiences will finally pay more attention to his regular gig, the Irish band The Frames. That idea worked well enough for me - the film certainly pointed me in that direction and I eagerly began making my way through their catalog.

I started with their most recent album, 2007’s “The Cost”, which features alternate versions of “Falling Slowly” and “When Your Mind’s Made Up”, both also on the “Once” soundtrack. On first listen, it would be easy to dismiss The Frames as another version of Coldplay, Snow Patrol, or any other of those types of bands. However, what immediately distinguishes The Frames from those others on this album is perhaps the same reason I was so drawn to the film – Glen Hansard himself. His voice is so honest and natural, almost like he’s a real person singing about real things in the same room as you. Very low on reverbs and equally low on the “forced whiney-ness” of singers like Chris Martin from Coldplay. Where it works for Coldplay, it would break down just about anywhere else. Glen really brings you into the song, and though it’s a band effort, you begin to feel a real emphasis on the emotions of the lyrics and the singing shine through.

Those who know me will also know that I am not at all a fan of most singer-songwriter offerings out there. There are not a lot of Nick Drake’s or Eliot Smith’s left out there, and most end up going the way of Jack Johnson or other similar, , music. With “The Cost”, I began to fear that The Frames were right on that border, so I decided to move further back.

I continued to move backwards but skipped 2005’s “Burn The Maps” for the time being and picked up 2001’s “For The Birds”. After a quick instrumental, we arrive at the second track “Lay Me Down”. Wow, much better. Again, the intimacy of Glen’s voice shines through, but now the supporting music seems to be better connected to the overall song and the band seems to be even channeling Nick Drake himself in this song, with strings darkly entering after the first minute. “What Happens When The Heart Just Stops” is a breathtaking track with the emotional impact of a volcano – erupting into a chorus with horns and Glen chanting “I’m disappointed” repeatedly. A few tracks later, with “Fighting On The Stairs”, we find the band ready to take more risks, crafting a song to rest on top of a heavy electro-disco beat. But it works. In “Santa Maria”, the band shows that they are not afraid to turn it up a bit, with a noise-rock section to round out the song – guitars on full distortion. They are clearly not the generic singer-songwriter band I was worried about.

Moving even further backwards, I went way back to 1996’s “Fitzcarraldo” and 1999’s “Dance The Devil”. Within the first 10 seconds of “Fitzcarraldo”, another influence becomes immediately clear – alternative darlings The Pixies (another favorite of mine). “Revelate” may as well have been found on any of the great Pixies albums! This album also featured another immediate favorite of mine, “Say It To Me Now”, in which Glen shows early signs of his ability to lay out his emotions. The bass line in this song is incredibly deep and subtle – provides warmth and movement to make the song move. This is another song that became featured on “Once” in a strictly acoustic fashion. On “Dance The Devil”, we are treated to gems like “Star Star”, a beautiful and minimalist ballad, and “Pavement Tune”, a clear single from their earlier catalog, with its rock roots.

At this point, I feel like I have a very good feel and appreciation for what the Frames are all about, and it was time to put it all together with 2004’s live offering, “Set List”. Here, the band run through gem after gem, and you begin to understand where the real beauty of the band lies – the live performance. It’s a subtle point, but ignoring the energy, medleys (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Ring Of Fire), and re-workings, what really jumps out is the fervor from the crowd. On almost every track and at every moment, you can clearly hear the crowd singing word for word with Glen. At one point during the first chorus of “Lay Me Down”, you can hear Glen overcome as he says “wow” after the crowd just takes over. THAT, my friends, is a live experience.

After it all, I am thrilled to be on the bandwagon. While I’m still not ready to put The Frames in my inner circle with Radiohead, Sigur Ros, Tool, Bjork, and my other favorites, I certainly can appreciate their strengths. Glen is a great singer who is so honest and natural with almost everything he does, and the band works incredibly well together. I hope that their next offering can break them from some of the vanilla they seem to have put themselves in with “The Cost”, but clearly there is enough skill there to avoid that trap. They are a great band and seem poised to really break out in the states – 10 years too late or not.


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