Dublin songwriter-rockers The Frames are a rather amazing story. From Grafton Street busker to stadium headliner, singer/guitarist/songwriter Glen Hansard has taken the Irish tradition of melancholy-yet-uplifting rock songwriting from its meager origins to ecstatic new heights on records like 2001's brilliant For The Birds. But The Frames' story, like their songs, might be viewed as much as mythology as modernist fiction -- as much Daedalus as Stephen Dedalus.
Set List documents this waxwing-rise as well as any record could: a live recording of the band, at the height of its powers, performing in front of thousands of ravenous fans, in Dublin. Nay, tens of thousands of ravenous fans, by the sound of it (last summer, in fact, the band did headline in front of an unbelievable 30,000) -- and aye, there's the rub. Performing in front of a few scores of curiosity seekers on the past few American tours, or on the live recording of "Fitzcarraldo" before 20 onlookers in Eastern Europe on Roads Outgrown, The Frames have proven themselves a stunning live band -- a band capable of being both quieter and louder (and everything in between) than anything you've seen before. On Set List, the proportions feel out of whack: The emotional intensity is intact, the dynamics still thrilling, but the quiets don't seem as quiet, and the louds more epic and arena-ish than cathartic and physical.
That's not to say that Set List isn't fantastic. Frames songs have a personality all their own -- sweetly sad; nostalgic, yet always looking toward some vague and unalterable future. Kinda like religion, or Ireland. Lyrically, Hansard's songs tread the line close to that pretentious "poetry-set-to-music" cliché, but do so nobly and successfully. So when the words float through, for example, the eight minutes-plus of "Santa Maria" ("from the slippery hands to the line of your throat / the fever now consumes us both") it doesn't feel like lit-student wheezing, because Hansard's whispered vocals are more ghostly, more desperate than his "poet/know it" contemporaries.
Musically, The Frames are simply a powerhouse of acoustic and electric guitars, backbone bass and drums, and reverb-laden violin that owes as much to John Cale as Kevin Burke or "Last Night's Fun." "God Bless Mom" showcases the band's oft-touted Pixies adoration with its alternating soft and falsetto phrases and coldly metallic violent breaks. Even the audience's Bruuuce-ish chant-alongs are often pleasant, as when, on "Pavement Tune," the band stops mid-verse to let the audience take the line quoting from Kool and the Gang's "Celebration." (Good job, too, Vicar Street.)
But when, on "Stars Are Underground," the song intentionally breaks apart with just an absurdly distorted guitar, industrial scrapes and blurps to accompany Hansard's singing, there's none of the creepiness that might otherwise accompany The Frames. "Fitzcarraldo" was, on the 1996 album of the same title, the first glimpse of the sweeping genius that The Frames would begin to display in the 21st century. And while Set List's rendition is typically vast and compelling, it also sounds like the vast and compelling version they probably played the night before and the night after.
As one of the most universally popular bands in a small land known for its music, The Frames come with decent credentials even if you've not heard the band -- and Set List is as much a best-of or a sampler for the uninitiated as a live album for the fans. (After years of small indies and ignorant lazy majors, Anti Records, home to luminaries of iconoclasm such as Tom Waits and Merle Haggard, will be the biggest distribution The Frames have had in the States.) Perhaps it doesn't capture the true intimate, dramatic possibilities of this remarkable band, but if it means that those days of playing for 20 people and sharing a couch at night are gone, then it seems like more than a fair trade.