For five weeks I had two records, For The Birds by The Frames and Sprinsteen’s Nebraska. Needless to say I didn’t listen to either record for a long time after I got home, but both will always have a special place in my collection.
The band has always noted that this was the first record they made for themselves. The first time they felt free from label interference or the expectancy of the fan base.
Consequently, the songs are not as immediate as some of the Frames output
but what the collection loses in immediacy it makes up for in spades with depth and longevity.
After the first play, I remember thinking the album was a real document, despite having different shades, tempos and textures that, there was a real cohesiveness there. A single thread that joined the songs, never getting tangled or becoming too aware of its own stitches. It was as if I had just seen a great movie or read an unforgettable novel.
The album reflects, in good measure, the various influences that the band had. It is tinged with Will Oldham/Palace Brothers, loud/quiet Pixies, Deus, with the odd flourish of Sparklehorse. Even their incredibly well-chosen collaborators in Craig Ward (former member of Deus) Rachel Grimes and Steve Albini belay where the bands musical heart resided at that time.
The influences and inspirations go beyond the musical too. Lyrically the work of John Fante’s ‘Ask the Dust’ is referenced on ‘What Happens when the heart Just stops’. Glen Hansard seems to answer the author by saying ‘there were no answers in the dust’, whilst revisiting the question later in ‘Giving me Wings’ when he sings, ‘come with me we’ll ask the dust, it’s on my way’. Both the artist, Egon Schiele and the sinking of the Santa Maria off the coast of Kerry in 1588 have been cited as the inspiration for the lyrics of Santa Maria.
Inspirations and influences are, however, largely academic as For the Birds is very much the captain of its own ship. In fact, I think one of the greatest achievements of The Frames’ career to date is how they brought their various influences to bear, but still got out the other side with a Frames’ record at all.
For the Birds opens as a mood-driven soundscape, with the sparse instrumental of ‘In the Deep Green Shade’, led by Rachel Grimes on piano underpinned with a cyclical electric and emotional violin. Moving from that into ‘Lay Me Down’, an Americana-tinged death dirge. Never has a burial sounded more appealing.
‘What happens when the heart just stops’, trades love weary lyrics, a meandering bass and paints guitar embellishment to uplifting brass that seems to bring the light. ‘There is a love that flows between us ever-changing everyday’ only to cave under the weight of ‘a lie that drags us beating and pulling into disappointment, I’m disappointed’.
The bruised heart finds a reason to beat again once more entering the fray with the hopelessly romantic and melody rich ‘Headlong’. The song builds and builds ending in a carnival of guitar noise and graceful strings.
‘Fighting on the Stairs’ is perhaps the most upbeat and whimsical tune on display using a cheap dance beat as the song bed. It really shouldn’t work given the integrity of the sounds elsewhere on the album but it does and to great effect.
Lyrically, we are being brought through myriad of heartache, introspection, sorrow and there is a pervasive and undeniable sense of melancholy embedded across all eleven tracks. There is also a little hope; just a seed, but it’s still there regardless of how rough the terrain around it is – the sense of hope regardless of how tarnished it may be that for me elevates this record and gives it its lasting emotional resonance. I think this mixture of feelings is perhaps best captured on ‘Giving me Wings’
‘You’re giving me wings so I don’t have to jump,
You’re giving me will so I can carry on’.
The gentle poise of ‘Giving me wings’ gives way to a boisterous ‘Early Bird’ that is a joyous noise frenzy. There is a poetic lyricism to the isolated paranoia of Friends and Foe :
‘And the little love I had
For all my friends and foe
And the little lines we’ve drawn between us all have
Throughout the relationship between song and arrangement is sensitive, synergetic with composition and instrumentation always headed in the same direction. The feverish ‘Santa Maria’ shows this kind of restraint and release to immense effect. When the explosion comes you want to hear the whole thing burn down, its high audio drama. Disappointed is reconciliatory and questioning in the same space with composer resigning himself to singing ‘These words don’t really fit what I’m feeling now,’ the stripped back music and understated vocal however seems to capture the songs intent perfectly.
The record finishes with ‘Mighty Sword’. It is a song woven with resilience and defiant hope. There will be challenges, endings, beginnings, a troubled journey much like life and the history of the band itself. Given the tenacity of The Frames, it is fitting that the record finishes with this rebellious call to arms.
‘We wield the mighty sword
That cuts through bone and lays the liars down
And we wield an angry sword
That softens stone and turns the tides around’
For The Birds celebrates its 10th birthday on April 2nd.
I asked some of The Exchange recently about their favourite Irish releases and they mentioned the following: Paddy – ‘Ritual’, Jape; Anto – ‘Heartworm’, Whipping Boy; Flor- ’24 Star Hotel’, Mundy.
Ian Whitty & the Exchange are soon to release a new EP that has us whetting our pants after their last album, Lucky Caller No. 9. Drummmm, drummmm, drummmm (fingers drumming!)