the swell season - strict joy (album cover)You know, it’s interesting. I listen to a lot of different things, as you can probably tell, but almost all of the albums on my list are pretty well known. Breadcrumb Trail by the Irish band the Frames, however, is probably the only album on my list that counts as a real rarity. I, like so many others, was absolutely enchanted by the film Once when I saw it several years ago, and I immediately looked into just who the hell these people who were. It was incredible music, the kind that just doesn’t get made anymore, and whatever it was, I wanted in. I found out the stars of the movie were Glen Hansard from Ireland and Markéta Irglová from the Czech Republic, and I looked into what I could buy from them. Well, it turned out they hadn’t done much else besides the movie, at least not together (check out my entry for #69: The Swell Season – Strict Joy for more info), but Hansard had done plenty as the frontman of a band frequently considered the top live act in Ireland, the Frames.

once (soundtrack cover)The Frames have been doing good work since the mid-’90s, becoming quite popular in their native Ireland and elsewhere internationally. But even with Once‘s breakout success (the wonderful song “Falling Slowly” won an Academy Award, after all), they have never achieved anything resembling success here in America. It’s just crazy that the music industry has failed to get behind such a surefire hit maker like Glen Hansard. That’s life, I suppose, for the indie artist: the music industry backs the (s)hit makers, the critics back the (no s)hit takers. Yet for some reason Glen Hansard isn’t part of either establishment. He’s not allowed in, and I have no idea why. Is it resentment for winning an Academy Award? (For a song which, by the way, was nowhere to be found on any “best of the ’00s” lists, despite being unquestionably great in a decade with pretty horrible music.)

It’s one of the reasons I don’t put much stock in what music critics have to say about contemporary music. They’re too smug and contrarian, and frequently cave to pressures to please popular opinion at the same time. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, guys. As a result, some music I tend to like a lot that has mainstream appeal but doesn’t have the sexiness of being indie or the benefit of being overwhelmingly populist tends to be critically maligned despite the fact that it’s much better than any of the junk they give high scores. Somebody like the Frames, even if they managed to be covered in Rolling Stone or Blender or Spin, wouldn’t be seen as anything special. The music they make would immediately be labeled not cutting edge enough (though to be fair, if I sat around reviewing music all day I might become overly demanding in that respect, as well), since alternative is long dead. (The Frames sort of fall into the alternative rock category, even though they aren’t mainstream enough to really fit.)

I almost feel like critics have become pretty useless. They seem to get it wrong half the time anyway, so why bother even reviewing music upon its release? Hindsight is all that will eventually matter. I do happen to believe, however, that the Frames bring a very fresh sound to the alternative rock scene, with Hansard’s folky songwriting and Colm Mac Con Iomaire’s violin. Plus, they’re from Ireland, so they have a unique background that very few alternative rock bands share. (Aside from U2 and the Cranberries, of course.) So what is Breadcrumb Trail, you wonder? Well, it’s a live album recorded in Brno in the Czech Republic, and it’s a stunner. It’s startlingly intimate; it feels like you’re there in attendance. Hansard nurses the audience with lengthy lead-ins to most of the songs, but I never want to skip through them, no matter how many times I’ve listened to it. I downloaded Breadcrumb Trail on iTunes a couple years ago and listened to it for the first time right before I took my last final exam my senior year of college. I thought I liked Hansard’s work before, but once I heard Iomaire and Czech violinist Jan Hruby trade solos on “Fitzcarraldo,” I knew I had uncovered something truly special. As of right now, Breadcrumb Trail remains a lost gem, as it has vanished from iTunes for some reason. (It’s still available for purchase on CD at Amazon though.)