Dynamics are a lost musical art in the rock world. That's dynamics with a capital "D" and that rhymes with "T" and that stands for "turbulence": Mid-air shifts in direction and speed caused not by pilot whim but by pockets of air-tide and cloud-burst. And this, these pockets of emotional turbulence, this violent but natural dynamic force, is what Ireland's most important band, The Frames, has in spades.
It's not as though it hasn't taken time. Far from the Dublin group's current homeland popularity, The Frames began as little more than Glen Hansard's beautiful acoustic-based songs strung together into Pixies-obsessed rock-band form. There were signs, however, from the early days: The title track from 1995's Fitzcarraldo remains a live highlight, and songs like "Perfect Opening Line" and "Pavement Tune" from 1999's Dance the Devil point toward what The Frames have become.
But what began as mere hints at greatness clouded by meddling record-company execs flowered when the band recorded 2001's For the Birds. Out went stylistic aping and laddish indie pandering; in came the maturity of artistic direction so many bands imagine. Burn the Maps may not be the kind of low-level revelation that For the Birds was -- a forced-march retreat from the hellish merry-go-round of the music business into a devil-may-care sonic formalism. But it might be the start of a Frames dynasty. What For the Birds established, a unique and solid Frames-sound foundation, Burn the Maps builds on with its own set of architect-precise tools.
The center is still certainly Hansard's brutally melancholy and intense songs. (The ending couplet of "Dream Awake" could be directed at his songs' own listeners: "There's a warning to everyone / who found something.") And standing stones of The Frames prehistory are still there: the Pixies adoration on "Underglass," the Will Oldham wail on "A Caution to the Birds," Veedon Fleece-era Van Morrison on "Keepsake." But where Burn the Maps succeeds most is in creating a sonically dense and desperate set that never becomes frustrating or contrived, like so many art albums by self-professed auteurs. Sure there are moody strings and slide guitars and Colm Mac An Iomaire's high-drama violin. But there are also disarming Moog twiddlings and chopped-up-tape guitar doodles, and pushed-to-hell amplifiers kicking feedback, and it all fits like old friends meeting to joke and wrestle and cry. And most of all, there are those blessed dynamics, that ability to shift from Monet reflecting-pool calm to Turner sea-storm flail on a dime.
As its title implies, Burn the Maps marks no new direction, but a new abandon in continuing forward. It's one fuelled by the vapors of past melancholies, but spurred on by a sense of impending redemption. On the album's coda, "Locusts," there's a sense that what's passed has been cruel but necessary. "I'm moving off / I'm packing up / I'm willing to be wrong." By accepting the possibility of mistake, The Frames have made the most difficult move in rock -- and their singed maps are better for it.