Burn The Maps
There is no secret formula for what makes one thing slip past the guards into the US subconscious and what keeps it standing at the bus stop with the other great ideas. I mean why is Echo and the Bunnymen still of interest whereas underdog fave of mine The Chameleons are a fond memory, if they are remembered at all. I mean I'm sure in the UK there was marketing and whatnot in effect, but here they were equal nobodies when they entered the scene. Who knows. But every once in a while I'll come across a group that has been huge in their extra-Amurrican home town, wherever that may implausibly be and have, for no fault of their own, not made a dent here. Todays example is The Frames, who have created one of the best rock albums I've heard in years.
Hailing from this place called Ireland, located somewhere off the coast of New Jersey, The Frames are a critically heralded group that match emotional textured strident string-laden rock with a kettle of anger and heartbreak ready to boil over. They have been on the periphery for ages and wrongfully compared to a range of groups like The Fall to Oasis, which is saying it tastes like either Thai food or sushi, but if one is to make that type of comparison (and not utilize the now meaningless Radiohead analogies) I'd say they sound like Vic Chesnutt's cousin fronting a spot-on Brit-pop battalion, with an occasional string section that is pleased as punch to record on a crack record like Burn the Maps.
This album baby steps out of the gate with "Happy," a fog cloud of rhythm guitar, strained voices and misery. Four seconds into the sparse piano line, I'm hooked with the simple anthemic melody structure, which is endemic of the whole record. The fields of balladry are cinematic in scope throughout the whole thing without feeling the least bit bloated. "Finally" is a harder number with more piss and vinegar in it with, 'Dream Awake" a fragile atmospheric heartbreaker, but they both have that anthem slow-burn structure to it that gets me every time.
The tender "Trying" is the one that put the Vic Chesnutt comparison into my head, with Glen Hansard's similarly slightly reedy croon, penchant for defeat as a subject and sense of harmony, as does the should-be-a-rock-classic "Fake" that follows it with the killer chorus:
C'mon that guy's a fake
What do you love him for?
It was my mistake
Just kicking in his door
And if its just a game
What are we crying for?
This is one of those albums where the flow is so well-executed yet the songs don't sound the same. It just feels like one big stream. Like on "Sideways Down" I catch myself paused at the keyboard, swept up in its tidal wave of bass and tambourine until its crests and gently deposits me on shore. I love that. For all my readily-admitted pretensions elitisms I hold as a card-carrying music dork, a brilliantly put together rock song is the winner every time.
Instead of describing each song in detail, like going on about the groovy moody bossa nova of "Ship Caught in the Bay" or the distilled rage in "Keepsake" or the folky plaintive earnestness of "Suffer in Silence," I'll just say this: I'm always on the lookout for a great rock album that will pull me out of the alleys of birdman avant-folk and navel-gazing experimentation I am drawn to frequent into the main street, and this is the one this year. And maybe when they tour the country and take over once Green Day finally implodes, they can drag the Chameleons out of retirement for an opening act.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com