2008 / Irish / Music

Oscar Win Casts Spotlight On Irish Band

Frames Band Member Starred In Film ‘Once’

Forget about the suspense over who’d win the Oscar in the top categories like Best Picture or Best Actor. The only real moment of drama at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony a couple of weeks ago was the sight of pale, giddy, Irish singer-songwriters, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova striding awestruck onto the stage to pick up the golden statuette for Best Original Song.

Photo: Fox Searchlight

Photo: Fox Searchlight

It was the kind of sight that gets all of Hollywood aflutter. As much as the movie industry might shell out the big bucks to get Halle Berry or Julia Roberts to appear in their movies , no one in Tinsletown really wants to see any of them — all sobbing, needy and drunk on the validation — dominate the microphone to thank their publicist.

Instead, as all great appreciators of drama, industry figures want to see struggling artists making good. Hansard and Irglova’s win for their song “Falling Slowly,” which appeared in the 2007 sleeper hit, “Once,” was a refreshing Oscar moment that took these supposed artistic urchins from Ireland are transformed them into bona fide international stars. The win serves not only as inspiration for the public to rediscover the film and its soundtrack, but also might prompt many to check out Hansard’s long-underrated, Dublin-based band, the Frames. And just in time for St. Patrick’s Day.

The movie’s roots are intertwined with the Frames. Writer-director John Carney was the group’s former bass player, and he tapped his old frontman Hansard to be the flick’s leading man when Irish thespian Cillian Murphy backed out. Hansard has had his moment of celluloid fame before, having appeared as the perpetually indignant guitarist in the Emerald Isle classic, “The Commitments.” He was partnered with the undiscovered Irglova, a Czech expatriate, and what began as a strictly a musical collaboration on set, became an intimate partnership off-screen (The two are now dating and perform as a duo, called the Swell Season.)

Filmed on a shoestring budget in Ireland and released on the indie circuit in the U.S. last May, the undeniably likeable “Once” has gradually gained popularity because of positive word of mouth. Romantics and members of the Irish Diaspora — often times these are synonymous — have championed the movie for how the plot tugs at viewers’ heartstrings with subtlety and sincerity. It follows in the footsteps of some of the best movies ever made — a coulda-been love story. The film alternates between breaking your heart and soothing that heartache with some incredible, mainly acoustic soundtrack

The movie soundtrack features all the film’s songs, including Oscar winner, “Falling Slowly,” as well as other marvels of torch balladry like “When Your Mind’s Made Up” and “If You Want Me.” While there’s nothing specifically Irish about the tunes, many of them echo U2, Coldplay and other pop-music giants of the British Isles. This influence isn’t as obvious as the arrangements remain focused on Hansard and Irglova’s vocal interplay and the pretty piano melodies and bright acoustic guitar figures.

Their harmonies correspond to their movie characters’ relationship — always slightly out of sync with each other, but occasionally overlapping with rare moments of exquisite union. It becomes clearer that this pair knows their Bono when the songs blossom from the whispery tone of the verses into the choruses’ full roaring wave of emotion. Swell Season is an entirely appropriate moniker for them.

Listeners can hear the musicians’ pop touchstones more blatantly on the other versions of these songs scattered among the pair’s discography. Nearly half of the soundtrack’s tracks had previously appeared on the either the Frames’ CDs or the Swell Season’s 2006 debut, including their breakthrough “Falling Slowly.” In fact, there was a minor controversy over “Falling Slowly” when it was nominated for the Oscar because the song had appeared on records prior to the movie soundtrack.

Most of the soundtrack’s songs correspond with heart-felt renditions that appear on the Frames’ 2006 disc, “The Cost.” The album is the band’s best CD and serves as the ideal introduction to the group’s six-record back catalog. The combo would nicely fit under the soft-rock label if each track didn’t eventually explode with Gaelic-reared emo intensity.

On the opening track, Hansard demonstrates his Chris Martin-ish vocal sweetness on “Song For Someone,” but as the record continues, melodic traces swiped from the band’s older heroes are apparent. “People Get Ready” has a squeaky violin and pummeling drumming that was likely inspired by the Velvet Underground while country-rock ditty “Sad Song” has a quirky opening lick that recalls the Pixies. No matter where these qualities came from, Hansard and company successfully merge them with their love-song-dominated modus operandi.

While Hansard takes this kind of proclivity into his partnership with Irglova, it remains a potent listen. Ultimately, the pair’s Academy Award nomination, as well as their simple, sensitive performance during the telecast, distinguished them as unlikely an honoree as when a then-unknown Elliott Smith bum-rushed the Oscar stage to perform his song for “Good Will Hunting.” Just as Smith rubbed shoulders with Celine Dion who was destined to take home the Oscar for her gut-buster from “Titanic,” Hansard and Irglova circumvented three tracks of epic bombast from Disney’s “Enchanted.”

Hollywood, like the Irish, loves the old standby of a plot celebrating unlikely heroes overcoming overwhelming odds. In their movie and their music, Hansard and Irglova have fulfilled what some might say is a cliche: they left tiny Ireland and won over not only American audiences, but the country’s jaded, film-making capital. Their win was a shocker, but there was no luck of the Irish here. They earned success with their pure and simple talent and likeability.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2008 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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