Go to enough extremes and you’ll find a kind of balance. Until now, The Frames’ music favoured bi-polar swings, violently loud on one song, violently quiet the next. On Burn The Maps, their fifth studio album, the band have reconciled their various personalities into one volatile organism, synthesizing gorgeous melancholy with full-blown anger.
If 2000’s For the Birds seemed to capture the Dublin/Chicago quintet playing in a small room with nobody watching, Burn The Maps turns on the arc lamps. Served by their most faithful production job yet (courtesy of ex-guitarist Dave Odlum and new guitarist Rob Bochnik, who formerly spent eight years working at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio Studio) and recorded in Black Box studios in France, the new record is a skilful mix of widescreen scale and magnifying-glass detail, sort of like putting a Herzog still under a microscope.
So, you get the self-questioning psychodrama and martial rhythms of the single ‘Finally’, featuring a hackle-raising vocal from Glen Hansard and typically panoramic string arrangement from Colm Mac An Iomaire. You get spiky, nasty pop songs like ‘Fake’ and ‘Underglass’, with its dum-dum bassline worthy of Kim Deal. You get the seraphic boy soprano melodies of ‘Happy’ and ‘Sideways Down’ and the graphic 4am truth-or-dare drinking games of ‘Caution’. And you get epics like ‘Keepsake’, distinguished by the sort of sea change dynamics associated with Mogwai or the Dirty Three. In short, here’s a world where Spector collides with Steve Albini, Arvo Part with Sparklehorse, open-heart surgery songs that deal in love and hate, mourning and ambition, art and blood.
But then, The Frames’ career (and one uses the word in terms of careering wildly as much as any overarching strategy) has always followed the music. The platinum-selling For The Birds, released on their own Plateau label in the summer of 2000, marked the end of major label bad marriages, and fired with newfound independence the band set about forging a sound based on fidelity to their instincts. The result: an earthenware collection of skewed avant-folk songs that sounded like they’d been written in a hole in the ground and recorded in some hi-tech coastal cave.
Nobody could’ve predicted what happened next. Slowly at first, but with increased velocity over the next year, things began to snowball. The album went from gold to platinum, and in its wake, renewed sales of previous Frames albums such as Fitzcarraldo and Dance The Devil. Somehow The Frames went from being Ireland’s biggest cult act to one of its top selling bands full stop. Plus, they were starting to sell out tours all across Europe, the US and Australia. Glen did a stint presenting the music television series Other Voices: Songs From A Room.
Meanwhile back home, they could cherry pick slots on any festival bill they chose to play (particularly memorable were a Dublin Castle headliner and brace of consecutive Witnness sets) and by the summer of 2003, were co-headlining the Lisdoonvarna extravaganza in front of 30,000 people. Funny thing was, they looked like they always belonged on that stage. The Frames were no longer noble underdogs. Now they were the main event.
While preparing their fifth studio album, the band released the live album Set List, at last capturing their incendiary stage sound on tape. The Irish public responded by sending it straight to number one in the charts, making it their third platinum album. Hot on its heels, the top five single ‘Fake’ was released in September 03, spending months in the singles charts.
2004 saw The Frames sweep the Hot Press Critics’ and Readers’ Polls, and they also won their first industry gong in the shape of the Meteor Award for Best Irish Band. More to the point, the band confirmed a new international deal with Californian mavericks Anti, arguably the only label in the world that could claim to be the band’s spiritual home, boasting such artists as Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Merle Haggard. They celebrated this by touring America with Damien Rice, and spent the last few months putting the finishing touches to the new album.
So, Burn The Maps, is at once a musical tour de force and a statement of intent, an album whose campaign begins with typical Frames-ian audacity – an outdoor headliner at Marley Park in front of some 17,000 people.
“With The Frames, it’s the throwing your arms around the room thing,” says singer/guitarist Glen Hansard. “When our gigs are at their best, you throw the energy out and it gets thrown back twice the size. I mean, I find myself saying things on stage that I would never say in my life, it’s almost like a whole new character or creature is born when you walk on. If you trust in the moment, if you’re willing to be the fool and make the mistake and get it wrong, then you’ve great potential to get it absolutely right. And I think that can be the scary thing about a Frames gig and the great thing about a Frames gig.”