For more than a decade, the Irish band The Frames has courted a reputation as a sort of alternate-universe U2: It shares its bigger-than-life counterpart's Dublin hometown, as well as its flair for big hooks and enough outsized dramatics to periodically teeter on the brink of preciousness. But for all the surface similarities, it thoroughly trumps U2 in the categories of warmth, modesty, fearlessness, and number of years spent touring midsize bars. Fortunately, the alternate universe in which The Frames' members are big stars actually exists in Ireland, where the band receives the sort of fervent audience affection usually reserved for Dashboard Confessional. Appropriately enough, a massive crowd even sings along during the first few songs on Set List, a fine document of The Frames' incomparable live spectacle. Though the group's most recent studio recordings—2001's For The Birds and an unexpectedly remarkable odds-and-ends EP titled The Roads Outgrown—have found it dialing down its penchant for bombast, Set List dials it right back up, to stirring effect. Some of the subtle shadings may be lost, but what's in their place is genuinely rousing: "Pavement Tune," "God Bless Mom," and "Stars Are Underground" all benefit from these performances' wholeheartedly committed, walloping urgency. But, as on the group's studio albums, The Frames' best work here is also its sweetest and most textured. In Set List's finest moments, charismatic singer Glen Hansard scales back the dramatics to tell a funny story about a dog in his old neighborhood, or let "Star Star" drift into a brief passage from Willy Wonka's "Pure Imagination." In these sweet asides, as in the grander gestures, Hansard and his band exhibit the firmest possible hold on their audience, in the process crafting the rare live album that's equal parts souvenir and unparalleled primer.
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