If the maps are on fire, it’s a slow burn, one ignited after a succession of faulty matches had been struck, broken, and dropped. The Frames sound like a folk band at heart, but they structure their songs around steady builds, employing crescendos, electronics, and stadium dramatics to outsize their music. Songs begin slowly, emotion develops, atmosphere happens, and intensity increases. While nearly any song on Burn the Maps works effectively, the album as a whole can’t quite maintain its momentum with such structural repetition.
At the song level, though, the group repeatedly shines. “Finally” appears second on the album, but ranks first among the disc’s tracks. Vocalist Glen Hansard’s lyrics reveal a complex narrator — a person seemingly comforted by the addressed party’s failed attempt to reach heights and afraid to succeed himself, but also comfortable in struggle and aware of his complicity in the problems. The steadily-strummed electric guitar chords set the mood, but the arppegiated sequences develop the tension before the section that functions musically as a chorus opens up space. The fiddle solo sounds beautiful and serves as a transition into the moment when the narrator turns inward.
The Frames’ precise craftwork strengthens each track. The group manages to put each detail in its right place, never crescendoing too much or soloing too long or using inappropriate orchestration or anything along those lines. The producers (one current and one former guitarist) are experienced in the studio and they put their knowledge to good use in making the album sound clean, but without letting it become too expansive or pretty.
The production values apply to both the shorter, rougher songs and the more epic numbers, including the seven-minute-plus “Keepsake”, which draws at least part of its inspiration from the type of post-rock that’s more concerned with dynamics, growth, and mood than with melody or rhythm. The song begins softly, with whispered vocals and few instruments, but gradually loudens to keep pace with Hansard’s expressions of turmoil. Electronic fuzz grows and you’re embroiled in a mess of noise and frustration. The song grows well, but it just takes too long to do too little. This kind of effort would be better left to the groups at Constellation.
What the Frames do otherwise, though, they do well for the most part. They’re formally and technically far ahead of Coldplay (to use an obvious reference point), but they’re neither as affecting as Elbow nor as flexible as Clearlake, two bands that, like the Frames, haven’t gained the name recognition in the States that they deserve. While the Frames do offer challenging emotional pulls, it’s the lack of flexibility that ultimately holds back Burn the Maps from being a fully successful album. The songs are each well-crafted, but too many of them are similarly crafted. In the same way, Hansard writes strong lyrics, but he’s consistently disappointed and despairing (even the song “Happy”, with its “You’re trying to break me down with your tuneless song”).
The Frames need to stretch themselves a little, to challenge their own art. They’ve clearly got talent, but, at least on Burn the Maps, they play it too safe, even if they come off as vulnerable. The music should get them some attention, and will hopefully show up on a movie or TV show at some point, but it lacks the spark necessary to draw in new fans. The album’s smart and well-done, but it’s just not where this band could be.