Ireland's Frames make misery sound beautiful

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      More often than not, when the Frames talk to the press on this side of the pond, they end up discussing what it's like to be huge in Ireland versus being a cult favourite in North America. The Dublin five-piece has been called the Emerald Isle's best live band this side of U2, which is no small compliment. The Frames could therefore be forgiven for feeling bitter at the fact that neither Canada nor America has totally embraced them yet. Instead, bassist Joe Doyle is philosophical when he's reached in Los Angeles, where the 16-year-old group is getting ready to launch yet another assault on both the Land of the Free and the Great White North.

      "American bands have been coming to Europe for years, and everyone expects that they are huge at home," the charmingly chipper Doyle says. "But what's funny is that the bands that we really like have always been way more popular in Europe. When you go see Calexico or Bonnie "Prince" Billy, or, going back, even Pavement, and they are playing to 4,000 people in your hometown, you think 'God, they must be huge in America.' And then it turns out that's not true."

      What is almost inarguable, however, is that when it comes to left-leaning pop music, U.K. music consumers have far better taste than the average North American. Like the acts they admire, the Frames have fashioned a solid career while flying under the radar, which in itself is an accomplishment. The quintet has also proved itself willing to adapt to the times. Back when garage rawk was on top, the Frames teamed up with Chicago's Steve Albini to record 2001's stripped-down For the Birds. For its latest, The Cost, the band goes the majestically opulent route, a smart thing considering we're in a time when Coldplay is king and every second emo act wants to be Queen.

      "Some of our records are kind of black-and-white, and the goal with this one was to make it a little more colourful, a little more dynamic," Doyle says. "We recorded the whole thing live, including vocals. It was a big thing for us to do just a couple of takes of each song then pick the best one and put it on the record. People always say they enjoy our live shows, but we've never really managed to capture those shows on record."

      The Cost finds Frames singer Glen Hansard as obsessed as ever with love and the various soul-crushing miseries that it causes, but that hardly makes the album a wrist-slitter. Instead, the group proves there's no reason tragedy can't be beautiful. The album's high-water mark is the brutally honest, barren breakup ballad "True". Elsewhere, "Sad Songs" presents pop at its most symphonic, "The Cost" references Angelo Badalamenti at his most reverb-obsessed, and "People Get Ready" plays out like an incandescent synthesis of Interpol, the Velvet Underground, and the band that made Bono famous.

      The sweeping approach to rock 'n' roll couldn't be working better for the Frames at home.

      "I don't know about America, but in Europe, rock music got really lost for a while," Doyle says. "It sort of got taken over by electronica and dance music. Now the climate couldn't [be] better for bands like us. The mainstream has really changed."

      Considering that orchestral-minded acts like the Arcade Fire are now legitimate rock stars in America, domination isn't as far out of the reach of the Frames as it once was. And if it doesn't happen, there are worse things in the world than being Ireland's most beloved band this side of U2.

      The Frames play the Red Room tonight (April 12).