In America, the Frames are only marginally more successful than Seattle’s willfully challenging A Frames. Ireland, though, greets the Dublin-based band with platinum sales. In this case, fatherland knows best. The Frames’ latest release, Burn the Maps, betters not only recent Irish imports such as Snow Patrol but also anything U2 has issued in the past catorce years. This quartet should be playing its passion-drenched anthems at Super Bowl halftime shows, and singer Glen Hansard should be at a farmer’s market with some elegant actress, searching for organic produce after which they could christen their child.
Hansard appeared as guitarist Outspan Foster in 1991’s inspirational indie film The Commitments, a tidbit that’s probably in heavy rotation on the preshow trivia screens at Ireland’s multiplexes. Instead of playing soused soul covers like his fictional character, Hansard injected distortion-reinforced volume into traditional folk structures.
Domestically, 1996’s brilliant Fitzcarraldo appeared on Elektra under the name Frames DC, eluding possible trademark-infringement obstacles while robbing the group of its exotic overseas appeal. (The DC stood for Dublin City, but the research averse likely wrote it off as a knock-off from the nation’s capital.) On 1999’s Dance the Devil, the song titles chart the album’s fate: Its hooks reached for universal approval (“God Bless Mom”) but achieved only esoteric success (“Pavement Tune”). In the U.S., that is. Back in clover country, critics were bronzing the band, and fans were fainting at its gigs.
The Frames turned to producer Steve Albini for 2001’s For the Birds, though the icon’s references suggest he’s much better at alienating the audiences of established acts than luring listeners to underappreciated artists. This disc contains “What Happens When the Heart Just Stops,” during which Hansard uses words like “beseech” and “bereavement” without losing emotional immediacy and eventually proclaims in confident tones that, though he’s profoundly disappointed, his wounds aren’t fatal.
This track would have fit perfectly on the Closer soundtrack (which introduced countryman Damien Rice to instantly infatuated romantic-misadventure connoisseurs) or the Garden State collection (Natalie Portman could have touted it as life changing). Alas, earnest indie songwriters were not yet the compilation cloggers of choice, and that year’s alienated-teen vehicle (Ghost World) filled its slots with dusty blues 45s.
Set List, the Frames’ 2003 Dublin-set concert album, demonstrates what might happen if Dashboard Confessional could fill 30,000-seat halls. The high-decibel sing-along factor is both annoying and astounding, drowning out even roaring choruses. The group might have trouble packing American venues, but it never fails to dazzle the spectators that show up. People still post on Damien Rice message boards about how the Frames stole their hearts as the opening act for his 2003 Pacific Northwest dates.
The Frames have a violin player at their disposal (Colm Mac Con Iomaire), which adds symphonic gravity to their crescendos. His solos bring a baroque charm to the bridges and make the choruses soar. The group’s guitar solos are purely decorative, scattered shards of shimmering sound, but their riffs ring with overwhelming resonance, like bells placed directly on listeners’ heads and struck with a steel mallet.
All of this comes through to some degree on Set List, but there’s no way to bottle the Frames’ live lightning. Sound waves visibly distort the air, like summer heat warping the horizon, and the group’s spontaneous shifts get swallowed in these sonic blasts. Subtlety isn’t the point of a Frames’ performance, but there is something to be said for their slow-simmering builds to boiling points, the way Hansard’s voice rises and falls with respiratory regularity. This year’s Burn the Maps provides the most awe-inspiring studio documentation of these epic progressions. On such topographic tracks as “Dream Awake” and “Ship Caught in the Bay,” the group’s soft/loud dynamic shifts reach exhilarating extremes. Irish Eyes Are Smiling
These tunes will never grace the Grammys, but then, the group gets enough of that back at home, where they earn nominations for Meteor Awards (the Irish Grammy equivalent) and headline festivals so large that they warrant their own zip codes. The Frames now reside on Anti Records, home of acclaimed artists that are as big as they wanna be (Nick Cave, Neko Case, Tom Waits). Their inability—so far—to cross over with American audiences might be inexplicable, but it’s not necessarily unwelcome. Here, Irish music royalty can masquerade as commoners, a time-honored fantasy just as compelling as any Cinderella story.