by Peter Murphy
Call it the miracle of evolution if you want. By accident or design, the Frames have always done whatever the hell they wanted, led by their noses through a funhouse of big label hoopla and indie intrigues. Frequently without a pot to piss in, they are nevertheless the envy of any band tethered to the industry treadmill, a maverick lot more at home in the ditch than the middle of the road.
The band’s fourth album For The Birds is the latest in a series of beautiful mistakes. If 1999’s lauded Dance The Devil album recast the band from a superacoustic rock monster into a quirky and crafty entity on a par with soulmates like dEUS and The Dirty Three, then For The Birds is the baptismal rite after that rebirth.
“It was the first record that we sat down and really talked about,” frontman Glen Hansard explains. “We decided to go make it in two weeks in a house in Kerry, lash out all these songs that didn’t get recorded on our last record. Also, it was the first album we recorded while writing, because we were tired of songs being played and played live, and by the time we got to record them, they were dead. It was basically just an honest recording of where we were right then, not tailor-made for anybody but ourselves.”
In keeping with that spirit, the band enlisted the production skills of not just old friend and ex-dEUS man Craig Ward, but also legendary Pixies/Nirvana producer Steve Albini.
“The guy’s the only real socialist I’ve ever met in music,” Glen enthuses. “Steve’s a complete engineer; he doesn’t produce. The idea of a producer is to make something easier to listen to, and Steve is he opposite, he’s like, ‘Fuck the timing or tuning, it’s great.’ He’s very honest, and he’s a hardcore man, the only person I’ve come across in music ever who’s been straight with us and not pulled any punches. He’s a thinker, and if he wasn’t a recording engineer he’d have to be a writer or some kind of philosopher, because he’s just constantly talking about the idea of art.”
For The Birds bears witness to the band’s coming of age as an instinctive and integrated playing ensemble, working in service of Glen Hansard’s open-heart-surgery songwriting. The record veers from the warm melancholia of a Will Oldham or Nick Cave (‘Lay Me Down’, ‘When The Heart Just Stops’), inspired avant-guitarde in the tradition of acts like Grandaddy and Mercury Rev (‘Early Bird’), weird alt-country (‘Mighty Sword’) plus other tunes which don’t sound like anything except The Frames hitting a particularly deep seam (‘In The Deep Shade’, the fractious dynamics of ‘Santa Maria’). The new music is conceived of timeless elements, distinguished by Hansard’s bare-all vocals, Dave Odlum’s always unobvious guitar, Colm Mac An Iomaire’s grainy violin and perhaps the subtlest of Irish rhythm sections.
Of course, it’s taken Glen Hansard and co. a while to get here, from the Nick Drake-meets-The-Pixies joyous noise of their 1992 debut Another Love Song, through the almost Zeppelin-esque plains of Fitzcarraldo three years later to the Pavement / Royal Trux-like brinkmanship of 1999’s the I Am The Magic Hand EP and Dance The Devil album.
This evolutionary process began almost a decade ago, in Dublin at the end of the 1980s, when Glen Hansard secured a deal with Island Records, recruited the cream of local musicians, and The Frames made their inaugural live appearance at a festival in the west of Ireland in September 1990.
By Spring of ‘92, the band had become one of the most talked-about live draws in Dublin. The first single “The Dancer” cemented their reputation as young guns with attitude. The band then recruited Pixies producer Gil Norton and began working on their debut album, and the result, Another Love Song, was released later that year. It was a turbulent time for the band; bassist John Carney left the line-up to pursue a career in film (he was replaced by Graham Downey - son of Thin Lizzy drummer Brian), and violinist Colm Mac An Iomaire fell ill, resulting in the cancellation of crucial American dates. Then, in the great Island housecleaning of the early 90s (which could count Tom Waits amongst its casualties) band and record company parted ways.
Nevertheless, The Frames were rapidly maturing, and amassed a fanatical following at a time when most rock acts could barely fill their own backyards. More to the point though, the musicians had written and arranged some stunning new material, including the epic “Fitzcarraldo” (after the Herzog movie), “Angel At My Table”, and “Revelate”, which still ranks as one of the classic Irish singles. Using money from hometown gigs, the band recorded all these tracks with former Boomtown Rat and Tricky collaborator Pete Briquette at the helm, and ZTT promptly snapped them up.
Fitzcarraldo was released in 1994, and while it wasn’t the definitive Frames opus, it did mark them out as serious contenders. Also, they’d begun making serious inroads into America, establishing numerous pockets of support on the east coast. Indeed, in the wake of Fitzcarraldo, producer Steve Albini expressed desires to re-record some of the key tracks, and although the collaboration never came to anything at the time, their paths were destined to cross again some six years later.
But first, it was time for an overhaul: Noreen left to pursue a career as an artist and bassist Graham was replaced by Joe Doyle. And onstage, the band were mutating faster than audiences could follow, with violinist Colm coming into his own as a musical foil, experimenting with wheezy old harmoniums, samples, kid’s toys, dictaphones and all manner of aural extraneousness, complimenting Dave Odlum’s angular guitar lines. The Frames DC were getting weird, and it suited them. This was a new, looser, but no less incendiary collective, and the songs reflected these changes, being at once emotionally direct but sonically skewed. Capitalising on this new buzz, the combo began recording Dance The Devil in France in 1998, hell-bent on creating a totally uncompromised piece of work.
The process was not without its casualties - drummer Paul Brennan departed two months into the sessions (he was replaced by Dave Hingerty), and the band’s rhythm section developed into a more fluid beast, no less technically adept, but more sympathetic to the songs. “One very valuable thing we learned in the making of Dance The Devil is that you don’t have to shout at people,” Glen reflected at the time. “I think we’ve kinda learnt as a band how to play less.”
The first fruits of the band’s labours surfaced in the form of the I Am The Magic Hand EP, which turned heads both in the band’s hometown and abroad. Dance The Devil sent those heads spinning right off their shoulders featuring very strongly in the Irish end of year polls. The kaleidoscopic swirl of “God Bless Mum”, the infectious single “Pavement Tune” and the brooding title track captured a band who had at last harnessed the acclaimed kinetic energy of the live shows and converted it into recorded sound.
The Frames sped through 1999 with scores of UK and American gigs before returning to Ireland to pursue an equally relentless festival schedule. “Rent Day Blues” came out as a single in November, followed by a national tour with Jubilee Allstars, David Kitt and DJ Dave Cleary (which spawned the tour-only compilation mini-album Come On Up To The House featuring the band’s sublime “Star Star” as the lead track). They rounded the year off with a special guest slot at David Gray’s Point Depot show in December.
Y2K year saw the band and ZTT part ways, and they were free to make the record they’d always wanted to make, not to mention fulfill that long overdue date with Albini in Chicago. Much of 2000 was spent writing and recording For The Birds in Kerry and Chicago. For The Birds was released on Plateau Records in Ireland where it debuted in the charts at #6. It has now reached platinum status there. Currently, The Frames are taking the new songs on the road with independant releases and gigs worldwide before getting back into the studio in August to start work on record #5.
“When the band started it was me with a record deal and a bunch of songs and I needed someone to play on them,” Glen says, “but that aesthetic is very different now. It’s always been a long-term thing with us. We just wanna make 20 records, getting better as they go along.”