Wednesday, June 22, 2005

I'm moving off, I'm packing up. I'm willing to be wrong.

So far it's been another day of sitting around the house, doing the crossword in the mid-morning sun and, of course, listening to music. One of the most pleasurable aspects of recorded music is that you can by an album, love it, forget about it for awhile, and then return to it in a few months and love it all over again. After such an hiatus, I pulled out the latest from Irish rockers The Frames this morning, and will now post a review of that record, which I wrote a few months ago when the album was released.

There's Order in the Sound: a review of The Frames' Burn the Maps.

In the modern English-language music industry, being from Ireland usually means one of two things. Either you're a musician in a traditional Celtic band that plays staid and sober renditions of "Danny Boy" and "The Rocky Road to Dublin," or, you're in U2.

Of course, such a generalization is only half true. There are at least a handful of very good rock bands from the Emerald Isle that, for a number of years, have toiled away in relative obscurity, struggling to move out from the mammoth shadow cast by Bono, The Edge and company.

The Frames are one such band. Formed 15 years ago in Dublin, they have released four solid albums of original material, two live albums and a collection of B-sides in their native country. They've gone platinum in Prague and had concerts sell out in Stockholm, but like so many other British and European artists, they have thus far been unsuccessful in gaining a foothold in the coveted North American market.

Burn the Maps, the band's first proper studio record to be distributed in the United States and Canada, just might help their cause.

The album, released on the Anti-Epitaph label in January, marks a continuation of the band's maturation and a movement toward greater nuance and restraint that is often missing from more the more showy musicians looking to make an impression in the crowded British rock scene.

Having started their career during the height of the early '90s Brit Pop revival, The Frames' first albums were largely made up of straight ahead guitar rockers with strong hooks, but little to differentiate them from the glut of similar artists coming out of the UK at the time. In terms of musical and marketing muscle, the Irish quintet simply couldn't compete on an international scale with stadium-filling heavyweights such as the heat-seeking Oasis and Radiohead, or U2, who had just released their masterpiece Achtung Baby.

However, constant touring brought The Frames a modicum of popularity in Europe, and the band eventually began to make inroads with their third release, 1999's Dance the Devil, and its 2001 follow-up For the Birds. Both records were huge sellers in Ireland, and in 2004, The Frames were named the country's best band at the Meteor Awards, the Irish equivalent of the Grammys.

These recent albums demonstrated leader Glen Hansard's unassailable pop sensibilities and literate but understated wordplay, as well as the band's skill at crafting vast echo chambers of sound in the studio. Dance the Devil is a serviceable, straightforward rock album with few pretensions aside from shaking one's speakers or headphones with a wall of guitars cranked to maximum volume. The band's next step with For the Birds managed to fill its musical space with everything from triumphant horn fanfares, jangling power chords, stirring violins and of course, Hansard's dynamic vocals. However, when taken as a whole, the affair seems somewhat derivative of most "mature" rock released at the time, particularly U2's smash All That You Can't Leave Behind.

On the other hand, Burn the Maps is less obvious in its tack. The music, while still passionate and full of energy, is on this album more accomplished than the band's most recent release, and exponentially more interesting than anything in their oeuvre before that. The Frames' modus operandi in 2005 seems ultimately to be based on the notions of control and restraint; which is to say that a number of the songs on Burn the Maps seem naturally inclined toward a typical rock music climax; but instead of reaching for those heights, more often than not the band purposefully pulls back just before the edge. The tactic is occasionally frustrating when one is in the mood for an all out blow-up-your-speakers rock song, but is otherwise deeply effective in maintaining a consistent mood throughout the album.

For this reason, aside from one or two tracks, the album has no obvious "American rock radio" singles, and it really does take more than a few listens to fully absorb the melodic and textural intricacies of most of the songs. Moving at what might be sarcastically dubbed "a snail's pace," the record's fourth track "A Caution to the Birds," is a perfect example: the slow-burning torch song begins in seriously hushed tones, as vocalist Glen Hansard whispers earnestly over some barely-there guitar strumming, but eventually builds to a powerful and hypnotic chorus underscored by intriguing minor-key harmonies and a plaintive violin line. The chorus acts to release the significant tension built up earlier in the tune. Even the song's lyrics act as something of a mission statement for the album, as Hansard chants the mantra "There's order in the sound."

But the climax of "A Caution to the Birds" is only a brief respite, and the listener is never allowed to relax completely. Instead of taking the song to its more obvious wailing-vocals and screaming-guitars conclusion, in a fashion that becomes typical on Burn the Maps, The Frames reign themselves in, contributing to the muted but visceral stir of the record as a whole.

In this manner, Burn the Maps almost functions as a concept album – not necessarily due to a unified lyrical theme, but because of its ability to sustain a musical mood, based on the confident and controlled application of a Sturm und Drang style of song craft. In fact, it's not until the middle of the record that the band really cuts loose, with "Fake," a monstrously heavy crowd-pleaser that rivals the output of any similar "name" bands, like Pearl Jam, Oasis or indeed, even U2. In a way, "Fake" (in which Hansard implores a former flame to see her new beau for the charlatan he seems to be) not only represents the album's most unabashedly exhilarating moment, but as the its middle track, the song also makes for an explosive "liberation," relieving the tension accrued by the listener over the album's first half. This feeling of release also helps set up the second act, which is filled with more delicate ballads and mid-tempo dirges such as "Keepsake," or the album's crystalline epic "Locusts." As is the norm on Burn the Maps, these are disciplined and stylistically intricate tunes, punctuated by brief explosions of distorted guitar playing by Hansard and Simon Goode, or the occasional moment of rhythmic abandon courtesy of drummer Dave Hingerty.

Whereas the strongest music from the band's earlier works (such as the soaring anthems "What Happens When the Heart Just Stops," from For the Birds, or "Fitzcarraldo," from their 1996 record of the same name) hinted at this kind of effortless sonic mastery, the band was unable to sustain the emotion and intensity for the length of an entire album. The Frames have no such difficulty this time around. On Burn the Maps, there is no excess fat. Individually, there are of course certain tracks that are better than others, but each song has its specific place within the complete work, which makes for a more fulfilling listening experience.

Perhaps the only problem facing Burn the Maps springs from the fact that, in some ways, it does represent a fairly obvious and expected progression for the band. Stylistically, the new songs work within a framework that has already been fundamentally established by the best tracks on For the Birds and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Dance the Devil and simply add more shades of nuance. To use a more obvious analogy, Burn the Maps is not The Frames' attempt to recreate Radiohead's Kid A. Whereas that album's Kraftwerk-style synth-pop was a complete about-face for a band that had ascended to the pinnacle of the late '90s Brit Rock scene, in this case, for The Frames the entrée remains similar to their previous servings, but the garnish is a little more intricate, the bouquet of spices more subtle.

Interestingly, the recorded Frames are in fact much more restrained than their incarnation as a live act. The band's critically acclaimed 2003 live album, Set List, is certainly a testament to their thrilling, leave-a-pint-of-blood-on-the-stage performances. As the support act on Damien Rice's wildly successful North American tour last year, The Frames were consistently lauded for their unabashed delivery of intensely passionate rock music. However, in album form, the band is almost polite. Some might say this betrays a certain uneasiness in the studio, but Burn the Maps is a solid counterpoint to the band's exuberance as a live act, and the meaty album has little to substantiate any claims of tentativeness. Here, The Frames are confident in their earnestness and highly disciplined in their display of musical nuance and restraint, ultimately making Burn the Maps an intimate and rewarding musical experience.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you would definitely get an A+ for that review. Or did you already? . . . hmmmm :)

6/24/2005 8:06 p.m.  

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