There is no question that the Frames are a quality band. The problem in the past has been that they frequently release albums that do not represent their best work. I first learned of them through a truly great album by the title FITZCARRALDO (named for the Werner Herzog film about an Irishman named Fitzgerald--Fitzcarraldo was how the locals transformed it--who had the insane dream of building an opera house in the middle of the Amazon). After several albums either somewhat or considerably below the high standards set by FITZCARRALDO, they have released a new album, THE COST, that is very nearly as great as that one. Truth be told, there is very little to separate the two in quality. I think the earlier album has a bit more of an edge. So may prefer the slightly softer contours of this newer album. But I will insist that anyone who loves this album will love equally the other, while fans of the earlier album will be delighted to find the band completely back in form. What is amazing is that it took them so long. FITZCARRALDO was released in 1996, while this one is a 2007 effort. Whatever the cause of their return, I am ecstatic that they are back.
I don't want to get into the debate about whether The Frames or U2 is the better back. Both are Irish, which is what invites the comparison. I will say that I rarely listen to U2, while I have frequently listened to one or another Frames album. I personally far prefer Glen Hansard as a vocalist to Bono. While Hansard lacks Bono's range and power, he has a subtlety and soulfulness that Bono lacks. He possesses some of the soulfulness of the greatest of all Irish rock vocalists, Van Morrison, though I wouldn't make the silly claim that he is on Morrison's level as a singer (for that matter, who is?).
The word on the Frames is that they are a mediocre studio band but an astonishing live band (I unfortunately have never heard them live), a distinction they hold with other great live acts. The Feelies, for instance, was one of the best bands in the world on a stage, but never recorded an album that matched their energy onstage (I did manage to see them live and can vouch for the excellence as a live act). The strategy on this album was to record the songs in very little time in the studio, hopefully to maintain some of the power of their stage performances. Whatever the reason, this isn't at all the same band that sometimes can sound a tad bland in a studio recording. The result is a great disc that might remind some of the Tindersticks at their best, but with far more emotion than that band ever exuded. And while there is some great playing on the recording, the engineers keep Hansard's incredible voice front and center.
This is a disc of many highpoints, but for me the best part might be the back-to-back gems "Sad Songs," which sounds like it could be a Top Forty hit, and the title track "The Cost." The former driven by wonderful hooks and infectious melodies, one of those songs that is so lovely that you love it almost on the first listen. "The Cost" is far more minimalistic, almost a duet between distorted guitar and Hansard, with just enough percussion to remind you that the drummer is still there. The song, like other cuts on the album, could easily slip over into bathos, but they keep the touch just right. Another cut I keep going back to is the opening one, "Song for Someone," but I love listening to the way that Hansard sings the chorus of the next cut, "Falling Slowly," nearly as much. But the next song, "People Get Ready," might be, if I were pressed to acknowledge a favorite, the one I like most on the disc. But there really are no bad cuts on the album, making it one of those albums you listen to repeatedly with tremendous joy.
While the Frames have not always been this good on record, they have been at least this good once before. Maybe they have turned a corner and this represents what they will do from here on out. But even if this is a one-time thing, this is a disc that anyone who loves great indie rock needs to own. Both THE COST and FITZCARRALDO belong in any decent musical library.