Why some bands gain popularity in their countries of origin and not on the international scene is a mystery that attests, perhaps, to the difference place continues to make in a world increasingly characterized as one in which space and time are compressed. As if to show that the global village is a fiction manufactured by transnational capitalists, The Frames have proven over the last 15 years that while they may not seduce audiences outside of Ireland, they are more than capable of endearing themselves to their fellow countrymen. From the 1992 debut ,Another Love Song through 1999’s highly acclaimed Dance the Devil to The Cost, Glen Hansard, Colm MacConlomaire, Joseph Doyle, Robert Bochnik and Johnny Boyle have successfully wooed listeners at home with their delicately layered folk/rock.
The fusion makes sense given the place from which these lads hail: a nation with a history of colonialism, partition, and ongoing conflict between North and South. Their music has been aptly described as desperate in tone, epic in proportion, and rudderless, phrases that might apply to Ireland’s own fraught position within global, cultural flows. One of The Cost‘s best tracks, “Falling Slowly,” expresses the need to find solid ground in the face of language games that obscure as much as they expose the complexities of a world continually in flux:
Words fall through me
And always fool me
And I can’t react
And games that never amount
To more than they’re meant
Will play themselves out
Take the sinking boat and point it home
We’ve still got time
The Frames might fail to engage listeners in the United States and elsewhere, but what they do excel at is pointing their sounds homeward.
Significantly, the band’s vocals and the instruments that follow their lead alternate between somber quiets and explosive crescendos to express the emotion merely implied by the lyrics. When Hansard sings “And together we will rise / And together we will rise,” the violin echoes the sentiment and takes the song toward a release that can only be described as daring. When he sings that “Too many sad words make a sad, sad song,” the guitars agree and, in unison, rock the boat toward safer shores. And just in case these sad, sad strains get too depressing, Hansard stresses that “The Side You Never Get to See” is “alive, comes alive.” The result is a coherent piece of work that is all the more impressive for having been recorded live. If there is something compelling here, it lies most saliently in the emotional immediacy of a performance good enough to be reproduced for CD without the help of overdubbing.
However textured the musical journey The Cost offers, however, the album tends to lapse too excruciatingly into the darkness from which Hansard’s creativity seems to come:
People all get ready
‘Cos we’re breaking down the band
Rewrite what’s gone already
And see it through with angry hands
And what has gone before us
Is a lot, is a lot
And who’ll be there to ignore us
When you’re not, when you’re not
Despite its moments of optimism, The Cost‘s cynicism suggests that the band might make a greater effort to steer away from the very negativity that tends to permeate the reception of their music in countries other than Ireland.
While the band’s failure to “make it” worldwide probably says more about listeners outside of Ireland than it does The Frames, one cannot argue that The Frames’ tendency to wallow in personal pain, at the expense of more politically pressing issues, breaks new ground. Hansard’s vocals do gesture toward politicized issues such as language, but they always return to the intimate, and thus also explicit, interplay between “I” and “you.” As PopMatters critic Marc Hogan remarked in reference to 2004’s Set List, The Frames offer “a suitably innocuous makeout record”—one worth the cost. Whether or not their 2006 effort signals a radical rupture from what has gone before is a different matter entirely.