Seven minutes into the Frames’ latest album, The Cost (Anti-), during a song titled "Falling Slowly," the Dublin, Ireland, veterans capture everything off-putting about their music in two stanzas splayed over a glassy-eyed piano: "Take this sinking boat / And point it home / We’ve still got time // Raise your hopeful voice / You have a choice / You’ve made it now."
If vocalist Glen Hansard’s tired poesy weren’t winceworthy enough, the fact that he’s pulled it out on wistful anthem number two of 10 would seem to cast The Cost as the kind of repetitive, inspiro-pop rubbish that should’ve gone out with the last couple Coldplay records.
But that’s exactly wrong. The Cost is a repetitive, inspiropop rock document too rich to write off, due largely to the lads’ penchant for grand arrangements and medium tempos. Recorded virtually all live in a studio over 10 days, the Frames’ seventh studio full-length embodies a thrilling live dynamic that has kept a devoted fan base snatching up tickets and T-shirts into the band’s second decade. So don’t get hung up on the excess of well-meaning sincerity. After so many years of playing together, they know their way around a plaintive power ballad.
"When we play live, we go from barely being able to hear us to melting your face off kind of thing," longtime bassist Joe Doyle explains from his Dublin home in a charming lilt. "It’s always been something people have said to us as well: ‘Yeah, I’ve listened to your records, but it just doesn’t do the same thing as you do live.’ And we’re kind of going ‘Shit, we don’t know how to do that.’ "
This time, Doyle says, the Frames figured it out. They rented a studio in France, hired a few extra musicians, worked out more of their songs in advance, and started playing in the same room again. "Everything on almost all the songs is live, including the vocals on some of the songs, and then we just added little bits over the top," Doyle says. "We’ve just come to the conclusion that when you record a song live and you just do everything in one take … there’s something in that that’s lost when you start editing a song and chopping it up and putting things in time."
It could be the magic in the cage-to-cathedral-sounding production. Or in the violin lightning of Colm Mac Con Iomaire. But something transforms the group’s balding rock structures into vast, bewildering voyages of disappointment and reassurance. Drunk on ribbons of reverby guitar, Hansard frees his words from contextual cliché, allowing them to settle comfortably inside the towering arrangements and become, well, meaningful. "Too many sad words make a sad, sad song," he realizes before a driving lap steel solo at The Cost‘s only country-tinged and finest moment. It’s a struggle the Frames evoke often: a vague but constant yearning and the price one pays for it.
After so many years, perhaps the Frames have yearned enough. But Doyle looks at the group’s anthemic tendencies the opposite way: they got ’em this far. "I guess the fact that we’ve never strived to be hip or fashionable probably means … probably means we never will be," he says, chuckling. "But maybe we won’t ever go out of fashion." (Ian S. Port)
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