Review Summary: As Glen Hansard’s third full-length release in eighteen months, it’s no shame that just one has fallen far short of expectations.
Anybody who’s not Irish, or at least takes an interest in the Irish music scene- essentially the same thing, transposed to a Venn diagram it looks like a tiny panda bear- will have difficulty understanding just how integral The Frames are to the current Irish music scene. Equally, those who do understand tend to be slightly bemused by their inability to translate that success at home to the world at large. They’ve long eclipsed U2 in terms of influence and importance, and the domestic independent rock market owes more to Glen Hansard than any other single artist yet, with the possible exception of Dance The Devil
, they haven’t made that one knockout album that would cement their status.
Like Our Lady Peace in Canada and Powderfinger down under, The Frames regularly score #1 albums and top twenty singles in Ireland, yet their numerous attempts to break the UK and US markets have ended in successive failures (though they are, like a lot of Irish groups, curiously popular in central/eastern Europe). God bless them though, they’ve never stopped trying and since signing a distribution deal for the US and Europe with Anti- (home of Tom Waits and Nick Cave), they’ve undergone somewhat of a creative resurgence, releasing two albums in the space of a year (plus Glen’s first solo outing), a massive improvement on a measly four in the previous thirteen years.
And that’s what makes The Cost
so difficult to bear. It’s even slightly ironic, in a sad way; in the past, The Frames have had good reason to feel cheated by the likes of Snow Patrol and Damien Rice, acts who’ve borrowed liberally from The Frames songbook and achieved lasting success, and now that The Frames have returned the compliment, it still feels like they’re the ones being cheated. Coldplay famously broke into the mainstream with their monster single ‘Yellow’ and Frames fans have long wondered when their ‘Yellow’ would come. And it finally seems to have come as lead single ‘Falling Slowly’ clearly aims for the same heights, fuzzy string bends and strained falsetto included, but comes across as just that: a half-hearted imitation.
‘People Get Ready’ apes Snow Patrol expertly, right down to the trademark metronomic rhythm guitar track, and features the sound of windscreen wipers throughout, for no explained reason- perhaps in an effort to create the “dark, rainy afternoon” effect Zach Braff wants for his next movie? It certainly sounds the part, climbing to a crescendo in exactly the manner the textbook would describe, if such a book existed. ‘When Your Mind’s Made Up’ is twice as cathartic, summing up the utter indifference of the record in one pointed lyric, as Hansard screams “when your mind’s made up, there’s no point in trying to change it.”
This “Ahhhhhh! I don’t care…. Ahhhhh!” formula is duplicated throughout the album both in terms of the lyrical themes, which focus on a failed relationship of some order, and the lumbering apathy with which many of the arrangements have been put together.
But for all the album’s failings, The Frames are an experienced group of players and, with the aid of a couple of great songs, they’ve managed to take a couple of limes, a bag of salt and made some really nice lemonade, and special mention must be made of violinist Colm Mac Con Iomaire, whose string arrangements are imaginative in a way that Snow Patrol’s could never be. Take the title track for instance; ‘The Cost’ is a grungy, ugly monster of a track, led by a single guitar soaked in delay and distortion doing its damnedest to make something beautiful from the unfortunate situation, allowing lush chord voicings creep in through Hansard’s lazy, self-pitying cries of “love has been the cause of all this suffering.”
Lyrical inadequacies aside, it’s easily the most accomplished track on the record and worthy of almost anything in The Frames reputable catalogue.
‘Sad Songs’ is lyrically the best track on the album, Hansard’s figurative “shower and a shave” in the midst of a cheap beer binge, and fittingly sees his voice sound uncannily like Cat Stevens. “Too many sad words make a sad, sad song”
may not seem all that profound, but when preceded by the words “I better stop complaining, it’s useless because…,”
it’s transformed into an epiphany, that maybe his situation isn’t being made any better by his feeling sorry for himself. It comes way too late to salvage the album, but ushers in a much improved second side to the album, and poses the question: why doesn’t the whole thing sound this good?
will, quite rightly, go down as the sole black mark in the career of an otherwise excellent career. Even the group’s ill-fated debut Another Love Song
, which Hansard disowned a decade ago, can hold its head high as at least a valiant effort with genuinely dynamic tracks. Despite pulling out all the stops towards the end, The Cost
is everything The Frames usually eschew: it’s bland, it’s monotonous and it barely achieves a tempo shift across forty-four minutes. But as Hansard’s third full-length release in eighteen months, it’s no shame that just one has fallen far short of expectations.