Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Frames - The Cost

Like many, I was first introduced to the Frames' lead singer Glen Hansard through the wonderful movie musical Once. Hansard starred in and co-wrote new songs for the movie with co-star Markéta Irglová. The film also featured old songs of his from his work with the Frames, and ever since I saw the movie the Frames have been on my list for future exploration.

Released as Once began its long road to cultural breakthrough, The Cost features two re-recorded songs from the movie: the Oscar-winner for Best Song, "Falling Slowly," and the film's climactic number, "When Your Mind's Made Up." Both songs are recast from their film versions, re-arranged for the full-band treatment by the Frames. While "Mind" just adds an appropriate layer of electric guitar picking, "Slowly" gets electric guitar, violins, drums and what sounds like a choir. The special thing about the Frames, however, is that simply listing that potentially overwhelming arsenal of additional instruments betrays the simplicity and subtlety with which this band adorns the original arrangement. The Frames, like the best Irish pop/rock bands, are a band that plays music that openly yearns from the heart yet never goes over the top. Simple, delicate moments á la Van Morrison and Damien Rice build to the expansive release of the most anthemic U2 songs. The Cost is a quietly epic album. The opening of this album's "Falling Slowly," is a perfect example of this dynamic: Hansard moans over roaring guitars as the song opens, yet as soon as the intro ends everything cuts out except for his voice singing the first verse and a bass drum barely keeping time. The Frames earn their moments of majesty by setting them amongst a field of delicate beauty.

The songs from Once, however, only represent 20% of this album. There's plenty more to be had here, and it mostly lives up to the promise of those two songs while branching in different directions. "People Get Ready" (not a cover of the Impressions' classic), is a beautifully slow-building anthem, taking its time to travel from a voice-and-guitar duet through the addition of a tumbling drum backbeat towards an inspirational chorus with Hansard's voice arcing through its upper range as the band combusts beneath him. Sort of a U2-Sigur Rós hybrid in structure, but perfectly unique and beautiful.

"Rise" is a quiet little number that suddenly unfolds into a sea shanty with a churning fiddle solo. "Sad Songs" is a straightforward pop/rock song, with an R.E.M.-style guitar jangle that turns into a sweeping slide guitar straight out of the best country and folk balladry, before strings arrive on the bridge to take us home. The title track brings the heavy guitars to a downbeat bluesy dirge, sounding like Neil Young's band Crazy Horse, especially when violinist Colm Mac Con Iomaire unleashes a solo reminiscent of one of Young's guitar freakouts. That it's the hardest-rocking song on the album might actually make it one of the weaker ones, but this is an album that excels when the volume leaps up out of a softer bed of sound.

As the album goes on, the rhythms of the Frames settle into familiar patterns. "True" trades a slow guitar lick for piano in another slow-burning ballad, followed by another upbeat number in "The Side You Never Get to See." The Cost has a very defined mood and feel and it sticks to it while individual tracks explore different expressions of it. It also just so happens to be a mood and feel that I dig; pensive and expansive, quietly epic. The second half peters out a little bit, but it's still a worthy adventure to explore that big Irish soundscape with the Frames. Those looking for more of what Once offered will find it here, where Hansard takes his guitar and voice and is joined by a game band taking off with him as his music takes wing.


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