Tagged: piano

Hvilken vei er ingen steder (del 3)

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Ivar Grydeland
Stop Freeze Wait Eat
NORWAY HUBRO MUSIC HUBRO 3538 LP (2015)

Enveloped in warm and fuzzy nocturne is this serene yet sturdy surprise from the ever-reliable Hubro label, nestling within which we find the laconic Norwegian multi-instrumentalist, one Ivar Grydeland – member of improvising trio Huntsville (previously reviewed here) – and his 6 and 12 string guitars, drowsily picking and tapping out morse code m’aiders in honeyed droplets to the sound of soporific alarm bells. However, the draping of every long tone in echo serves more than simply a sedative function; it is Grydeland’s ‘extended now’ that allows him to improvise atop the sounds of his own playing in a window of time that he likens to a painter’s stepping back from the canvas to regard the work underway. Meanwhile the listener is free to sink deep into a crackly dream world of pin-pricked, low-frequency harmonics; a less focused take on Oren Ambarchi’s soundworld, but a cosy blanketing that never smothers.

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Trondheim Jazz Orchestra / Christian Wallumrød
Untitled Arpeggios And Pulses
NORWAY HUBRO MUSIC HUBRO HUBROCD2566 (2015)

Our first (and last) encounter with the Norwegian ‘jazz’ pianist Christian Wallumrød was bemusing to say the least, an effect partly brought about by the connotations of using the j-word, by Wallumrød’s history with the ECM label and by that record’s unfailing ambiguity of style and intention. Intriguing to a fault, Pianokammer defies the finger of categorisation, falling somewhere ’between the realms of easy listening and cold abstraction’, to the point at which questions such as ‘do I like this?’ become redundant. Whatever motivations led to the recording of that strange selection, they remain invisible to the naked ear.

Its successor – Untitled Arpeggios and Pulses – arrives in a similar cloak of cool mystery and a title suggestive of the anonymity and simplicity of its ethereal ways. Carried by The Trondheim Jazz Orchestra as a commission for Kongsberg Jazz Festival’s 50th anniversary in 2014, the ‘action’ has moved from the fire-lit living room in winter to the chilled auditorium where quiet coughs mingle with the steam of musicians’ breath. Suspended in air, rendered sluggish by hibernation instincts or lurching like locked groove vinyl, the four sections of this 50+ minute composition consist of short, semi- and atonal phrases repeated ad infinitum by small and unusual instrumental assortments that include piano and pedal steel peddling peace and forgetfulness (part 2), to a trudging, trash-coated behemoth for graunching guitar, Supersilent-style electronics and jubilant bursts of winter-numbed brass.

Clearly intended for a single sitting: walk in at any moment to find an absolute mess. Sit back however, and enjoy the unfurling from afar and things might start to click into place. Devoid of straight up ‘jazz’, the orchestra’s dedicated pursuit of the ‘pulse’ overrides all other aesthetic commitments. It’s challenging music in the best possible sense, and best of all, it knows when to keep its mouth shut.

Masters Of Suspense

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The Necks
Vertigo
UK ReR MEGACORP ReR Necks 12 CD (2015)

It is received wisdom that The Necks do what they do better than anyone else, in the same way that the Dead C do what they do better than anyone else, the way that This Heat do/did what they do/did better than anyone else. One could also say; no-one else does what they do.

Those familiar with The Necks’ recent output will recognise the ingredients; watery rotary speaker-processed Hammond organ, sampler glitches, sinister bass tones, hard-edited reversed drum hits, cymbal shimmer, playful long duration, repetition and slow, relentless real-time development of a theme. This remarkable Australian trio – pianist Chris Abrahams, drummer Tony Buck, and Lloyd Swanton on bass – take the classic jazz piano trio format and subvert it. As an important component of the Sydney music scene over the last twenty-odd years, all three have also regularly performed as part of more recognisably “straight jazz” projects as well as operating as session musicians and enjoying opportunities to follow their own individual paths. The fact that they still come together and can produce sessions of this quality tells of a shared musical pursuit that may be very close to a compulsion.

Vertigo is apparently the Necks’ eighteenth album. That’s some achievement for a group concerned only with pure improvisation operating in a commercial field. The fact that a project as outstanding as this has come out of a country whose popular music history has often been unfairly presented by some in the music press as being relatively unremarkable, is in itself faintly bizarre, yet pleasing; not to say surprising. They seem to have never put a foot wrong; from 1989’s debut Sex to what I have here on my desk today – there’s a sense of continuity and achievement to their work. In particular, they have been successful in presenting their own unique brand of freedom. According to the album’s press release, the Necks are “…powered by an idea”. Their idea is to perform music which has little pre-ordained about it. Improvisation in jazz is nothing new of course. But it’s kind of how you do it that counts. In the world of piano trios, the Esbjörn Svennson Trio knew what they were doing, for example, whereas arguably The Bad Plus don’t.

Vertigo is one 44-minute improvisation. As always, The Necks “…explore the development and demise of repeating musical figures…”, as their Wikipedia entry explains. And there’s something Lovecraftian about it. The recording begins fairly subdued, yet with simmering purpose; when the electric piano comes in out of nowhere at 15:14 it’ll give you the heebie-jeebies. Throughout, the music is suspenseful; it promotes a sense of unease in the listener. It’s not overt – it’s just a feeling that there’s something unacknowledged and nameless contained within; or within the listener, even; waiting to get out. The trio drive the music on; not forcibly, but with clear deliberation, and as relentlessly as a summer gale. It is elemental; like fog at twilight or a sea mist. Not all boats that leave port return home safely. Rotary speakers are dashed on the rocks. The final few minutes are like dinner party music; for when the hors d’oeuvres get served round at Cthulhu’s house. Indeed, there is an inscrutable photograph of a large body of water adorning the sleeve, so I reckon I’m not far off imagining the tentacles.

Long Overdue Part 17

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Lubomyr Melnyk is the Ukrainian composer and pianist who makes beautiful long-form music. We noted The Voice Of Trees in 2012, a composition for two pianos and three tubas released on the Swiss label Hinterzimmer Records. They also put out Windmills (HINT 19) in 2013, of which the main event is ‘Windmills (For 2 Pianos)’, performed by the composer and recorded in “Omni-Sonic sound”, presumably the better to help us enjoy the sonorous nature of this deep and rich music.

‘Windmills’ is a very old-fashioned narrative piece, telling the story of an old windmill and based on Melnyk interpretation of an early Walt Disney animated cartoon. Presumably this is The Old Mill, a 1937 Silly Symphony directed by Wilfred Jackson with music by Leigh Harline. The sleeve note to this Hinterzimmer release gilds the lily somewhat, by giving us a written description of the visuals which ought to be conjured by the music, and treat us to such heavy-handed gems of prose such as “we hear the massive but worn gears begin to toil as the wind wakes the windmill from sleep…”. This feels rather like school magazine English literature and doesn’t really do the music any favours on this occasion. But it also brings home to me how prosaic Melnyk’s music can be. I enjoyed the transcendent majesty of The Voice Of Trees, but this music seems to be making one simple statement over and over again, and stretching it out for 45 minutes. However, I don’t object to the romance and beauty of these simple arpeggios and repeated phrases, and Melnyk’s sustained performances are clearly fuelled by passion and belief, not just stamina.

Long Overdue Part 1

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Welcome return for some music by The Vitamin B12, in a double-cassette set we’ve had here in the racks since 2014. The Vitamin B12 is sometimes just a solo project by Alasdair Willis, but has also been an improvising collective involving any number of people in and around the Brighton UK area. We used to enjoy the solo records enormously back in the day, such as the vinyl-only releases 2LP Gatefold Set from 2000, or the double LP Badges from 2003, and for a time I was amazed we managed to persuade this rather reclusive fellow to contribute some record reviews to the magazine and provide some of his sumptuous drawings as well. Solo Vitamin is always hard to pin down to a genre, but it’s usually a form of very melodic music, full of inventive and eccentric electronic tunes and ditties, informed by everything from Radiophonic Workshop, easy listening, and classical avant-garde composition. The improvising version of The Vitamin B12 didn’t appeal to me half as much, but the manic skittering clattersome noise they made was well represented on a series of 10-inch LPs called Heads, all issued together in 2006. When spun, you had the impression with these players that they just didn’t know when to stop.

Today’s item is not like either of the above “modes”. Winter City Patterns 1-4 is two cassettes with zero artwork or information printed anywhere, and they’re sealed inside a plastic box which you have to open by loosening four screws. Luckily, I have a head start in that department. Listeners without a Philips screwdriver will find themselves at a loss. I was afraid it might turn out to be a memory stick inside the box, containing some 400 unreleased albums. I wouldn’t even have known the title had it not been for the helpful letter from Nick Langley of Third Kind Records, who issued it and sent me a copy. It’s a solo set by Alasdair Willis; “the music…will definitely not be described as impenetrable”, writes Langley.

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Winter City Patterns is all keyboard music, mostly piano (or digital piano) with some other keyboards including a tasty organ preset, with one long piece per side of a tape. It is indeed very accessible music and in places quite beautiful. The earlier electronic music from 2000 onwards was often characterised by its brevity and compactness, but here Willis has opted for the long form to allow his discursive ideas to develop. Perhaps as a result of this, it’s easy enough to find comparisons with the music of Terry Riley or Philip Glass in these repeated arpeggios and restated patterns with their slight variations, but Willis is clearly not aiming for anything as solemn or monumental as an American Minimalist, and is still happy to construct model villages and Lego toytowns in sound. His music here may mesmerise and enchant, but he doesn’t promise mystical Sufi fulfilment or Eastern knowledge at the end of it, maybe rather a trip to the toyshop and a bag of boiled sweets. All of the pieces are pretty much in a major key setting, contributing to the sense of uplift and well-being; and the music flows as naturally as a mountain spring.

Besides the American minimalism parallels, there’s something of more substance and complexity going on with sides three and four (at any rate, the third and fourth sides of these unmarked tapes which I spun) with moves and structures which I would like to classify as more European, but I lack the musical knowledge to affirm this claim. One might hear traces of Satie in these inventions and caprices, including phrases which sound as though they ought to be quotes from well-known classical works, woven seamlessly into the flow of the music. For one thing I had no idea Willis was so fluent and capable behind the piano, but with such a self-effacing personality it’s perhaps in keeping that he remains modest about these achievements.

If one could find fault with Winter City Patterns, it would be with the small problem that Willis solo, like the Vitamin B12 collectives, doesn’t know when to stop. The duration here is important to the meaning and realisation of each piece, but they also seem to go on for far too long, without really progressing much in the process. There’s also this slightly cloying taste to the work, to the point where the major key and user-friendly melodies start to become irritating. It’s almost like a very contemporary form of cocktail lounge music. These observations though should not detract from your listening pleasure as you allow these lengthy and pleasing extemporisations to wash over you like a warm bubble bath. From 1st December 2014.

A Perpetual Fog

Ryuichi Sakamoto Illuha Taylor Deupree

Ryuichi Sakamoto / Illuha / Taylor Deupree
Perpetual
USA 12K 1082 CD (2015)

This disc is housed in a beautiful and enticing gatefold sleeve; the design printed in muted grey-greens on a good quality textured card stock; really a beautiful thing in the hand. Illuha are Corey Fuller and Tomoyoshi Date and they already have three of their own records on 12K; Shizuku, Interstices and Akari. Fuller plays guitar and pianet, augmented with electronics, while Date claims responsibility for pump organ and “noises” as well as more of the ubiquitous electronics. Taylor Deupree, who uses a modular synthesiser here, is pretty prolific and enjoys a good collaboration; as you probably already know he also has previous releases on 12K plus albums on labels such as LINE, Raster-Noton, and/OAR, Mille Plateaux, Room40, but since about 2010, mostly 12K, including his 2013 collaboration with Sakamoto, Disappearance. Here he plays modular synthesiser.

I was going to write something along the lines of “…It’s good to hear the familiar timbres of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s synthesiser patches on these three pieces of music: “Movements 1, 2 and 3”. Sakamoto’s patches are like a family friend’s old dog you’ve known since it was a puppy or a familiar aunt’s cardigan. They are reassuring. I’ve been listening to them since his soundtrack to the film Merry Xmas Mr Lawrence back in 1983 it seems. To me, some of Sakamoto’s sounds on this album are reminiscent of the ones he used on David Sylvian’s piece ‘Steel Cathedrals’ on Sylvian’s 1985 album, Alchemy – An Index of Possibilities …” but it actually transpires that Sakamoto plays only piano – treated and untreated – on Perpetual. So it must be one of the other guys making a knowing nod towards Sakamoto’s unique oeuvre. Glad I spotted that. Could have been embarrassing. Or maybe I’m simply investing so much personal significance onto his music that I like to think the sound of the poor man eating his lunch might be recognisably “Sakamoto-ish”. So anyway: as you can tell, Sakamoto’s music has in some small way been a perpetual presence in my life, you could say.

“Movement 1” has a tinge of Brian Eno’s Music For Airports about it; but barely that. I feel like I’m hearing things that sound like Music For Airports all the time. Maybe I am. My wife watches a lot of television in the evenings. “Movement 2” includes raw recordings of cymbals and voices – by “raw” I mean they sound unprocessed – and, mixed low in the mix as they are, add a very satisfying grain to the music as a whole. “Movement 3” carries on pretty much where “Movement 2” left off. I would go as far as to say Perpetual has the feel of one long session edited into three passages in post-production, although this may not actually be the case. This album is like an evening spent in a comfy armchair, watching the fire with a good quality Scotch in hand, in a quiet, welcoming, old-fashioned country public house. Possibly with someone’s large dog asleep at your feet. Somewhere you don’t want to leave in a hurry. But in the same way you are abruptly sent out into the rain by the landlord at 11:10; when Perpetual fails to live up to its name and finishes at 49:46, not only are you suddenly and unexpectedly outside at the mercy of the weather, you are also left pleasantly foggy in the head by the whole experience. Don’t forget your big coat.

The Carousel: a slow languid recording ruminating on times past

Tom James Scott, The Carousel, Skire, cassette SKR05 (2016)

Recorded during the northern hemisphere summer in 2015 through to winter in 2015/2016, this short cassette features 12 instrumental pieces composed and performed by Tom James Scott on piano, guitar and keyboard, with one track “Hiding Places” also including autoharp by Kristina Liulia. These slow little pieces – almost like fragments really, reaching out to connect somehow and almost succeeding – have a languid, sultry air and some of them are very solemn too, probably because of the soft organ-like instrument droning steadily in the background.

The feeling across this cassette seems to be one of longing or regret over fading memories or lost opportunities. Titles suggest an inward-looking, maybe even obsessive focus on objects that recall past childhood memories and feelings, objects recording the passage of time. On some tracks, background chatter has been left in, not just to emphasise the improvisational or ephemeral (or both) nature of the music perhaps but also to highlight the alienated quality of the solo instrument playing its lacklustre melody. On Side B, one track is taken up with creaking sounds suggestive of someone trying to wind up an old creaking wooden clock to get it to work and not succeeding too well.

As you can imagine, listening to this tape isn’t always a pleasant experience and it doesn’t lend itself to frequent replaying. But if one late summer’s day, when the sun is already starting to set behind the trees and hills, long shadows are stretching far in front of you, and your thoughts turn to pleasures and good times that are already fast becoming sketchy in your mind, soon to be unreachable in the recesses of your brain, you know someone else has already limned out the soundtrack for what you feel.

The album is limited to 175 copies and each comes in an attractively designed slipcase with a download code.

Understated Saccharine

Bruno Bavota

Bruno Bavota
Mediterraneo
RUSSIA DRONARIVM DR-31 CD-R (2015)

This disc is a little unusual in that it is not the sort of thing that I would usually expect to find within The Sound Projector’s remit, but nevertheless here it is, so here goes. Mediterraneo is a highly pleasant and yet simultaneously extremely unchallenging piano and acoustic guitar music of a hyper-melodic bent. Apparently the recordings were made in total darkness, which could have been an interesting starting point conceptually, but unfortunately, Bavota sees no reason to explore the implications of such a strategy and no attempt is made to develop the idea the way others such as Yiorgis Sakellariou or Francisco López use darkness as part of their own operations.

After two fairly unremarkable pieces, the third, “Hands”, employs a chiming, delayed guitar which threatens to lead us into more interesting Mogwai-like territory, but once the piano starts, the guitar is reduced to providing reverberant swells to support the chord changes. Later, Marco Pescosolido’s cello and Paolo Sasso’s violin augment those same chord changes well and for me it is their efforts which go a long way to turning the piece round.

If a contemporary piano album could have an obvious single, track four “Who Loves, Lives” is it. It is crying out for a female pop vocal and I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up being sampled with a vocal line courtesy of someone like Ellie Goulding before long. Track five, “Alba”, uses a similar fingerstyle acoustic guitar progression as Kaleidophon’s Here from 1998, but where Kaleidophon deliberately left in recording and production errors as textural artefacts, Bavota’s recital on guitar here is pristine and flawless and as such maybe lacks a little interest and authority. When the distantly-recorded Steinway (a model D274, the sleevenotes inform us) kicks in, the piece improves immeasurably. Incidentally, the first cassette-radio I owned was made by a company called Alba. Moving on, the super-restrained, quiet beginning of “The Night” could almost be a Talk Talk / Mark Hollis homage until yet another endlessly repeated, tricksy little melody rudely obliterates the effect.

The nadir of the album (so far – track 7) is the title track which sounds lovely in terms of production value, but employs an annoyingly unchanging chord structure, predictable melody, and perhaps the most amount of understated saccharine I’ve ever heard in an album of popular music. I suspect these are all deliberate strategies on the part of Mr Bavota. From a record company’s point of view it ticks all the boxes; great production, skilled performances, accessible composition, but to me it’s like everything I’ve ever heard squished together into a nice neat block of “what contemporary popular piano music should sound like”, with all the fat, gristle and offal removed. Have you ever seen those vacuum packed pre-cooked half chickens you get in convenience stores? That’s what this reminds me of. Superficially beguiling but once you get stuck in, it proves to be tasteless, wan, textureless and of dubious nutritional value. By the ninth offering, “Sweet Fall”, it is obvious Bavota is aiming to plough a similar furrow in more or less every track, but he’s got plenty of diesel left. Clumping piano block chords descend for ever in to an abyss of self-satisfied cleverness. I could suggest that most nine-year-olds learning the piano could produce a similar result.

Bavota is credited as composer, arranger and with piano, guitar delay, reverb and, fashionably, field recordings. Where are these field recordings? I couldn’t actually hear any. Where were they made? Who were they made by if not Bavota himself? The press release mentions “…the sound of the autumn rain…” but I’ve not been able to spot it. Albums of this sort are probably very popular with people who hold a lot of dinner parties, but I personally felt like I was either in a motivational video for bank workers or watching a trailer for the latest Hollywood rom-com most of the time. Or listening to Coldplay Unplugged if such a thing exists. So far this year we’ve lost talent like David Bowie, Keith Emerson, Lemmy Kilmister and most recently, Prince Rogers Nelson – is this the sort of new thing we really should welcome into the pop mainstream? You decide.

Black and White Myth

Ingrid Schmoliner2

Ingrid Schmoliner
КаРЛИЦЫ СЮИТа
GERMANY CORVO RECORDS CORE 007 LP (2014)

Surprises abounded on my first listening of this cold and lunar looking LP of prepared piano performances, where red-fonted cyrillic breaks an otherwise bleak and monochrome sleeve-gazing experience, and the minimal word count on the rear suggests a rather painful by-the-word printing cost. But the clues are there: those repeated charcoal-on-snow gouges that form the cover image attest to the maniacal obsessiveness with which Austrian pianist Ingrid Schmoliner attacks her chosen instrument. Stuart Marshall noted her exploratory methods when reviewing the improv trio Para’s ‘skeletal’ interactions, and her journeying within clearly did not end with that sparse and sometimes rather distant effort. If anything, КаРЛИЦЫ СЮИТа sees her deepen her enquiry into the piano’s metaphysical body, with the intention of dragging some ancient unspeakable into our quivering realm.

Our stern-faced composer locks from the first into the same unrelentingly mechanical manner with which she closes closes the album, exhibiting an intensity that meets and exceeds press descriptions such as ‘tribal trance’ by virtue of the music’s non-electronic origins. In fact, precious little here was generated electronically, just some E-bows, ‘recorded without overdubbing’ she hastens to add as if to mollify the analogue luddites. Instead, she favours a primordial and percussive form of performance; one bordering on invocation. Fittingly, Schmoliner conceives of the suite as a modern expression of a mythological cycle, that of the saga of the Percht; a midwinter female goddess who resides deep in the Austrian alps. One must assume that such holy patrons would not be displeased by her indefatigability, nor her downright ferocity, in her exhortation to their ancient ways.

In between Schmoliner’s menacing bookends, the listener passes through charcoal variations of the same cyclical rhythms and clusters, sometimes only faint in resemblance so as to permit voice to resonant metal winds, dimly ringing bells or ghostly, Thomas Köner-esque foghorns that ache across the arctic night, summoning us from the first side to the second while heavy footprints loom nearby, alluding to clandestine night rites and feral cousins to Pierre Bastien’s otherwise charming robot orchestras. Though clearly adept at creating uneasy settings, she is equally compelling and if anything, the record’s brevity is a virtue, encouraging repeated listening while reminding us that playback forms part of a never-ending loop, which will eventually reveal its true face to the more enquiring of us.

Tears Before Bedtime

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Above The High Rays (FEEDING TUBE RECORDS FTR193) by Miaux was originally released in 2015 by Dennis Tyfus’s Ultra Eczema label as a limited edition tape…Feeding Tube Records have reissued this 12-minute piece as a single-sided 12-incher with an etched image on one side. Mia Prce is a composer (born in Sarajevo, now based in Antwerp) who has released a couple of other singles for Ultra Eczema, and a short cassette EP Étude Des Têtus for Taped Sounds in Belgium. She appears to have drawn influences from her dad’s collection of Krautrock and art music LPs, and has hurdled swiftly over the lessons from her classical piano training to embrace the possibilities of digital keyboards. Yes, she knows about chord structures for sure, but she’s kind of downplaying that skill in favour of programming skills and studio effects, producing distilled and pure statements in electronic sound.

Her music here does have a certain wispy charm…understated, but not trying for the all-out “minimalism” of an Asmus Tietchens, since she’s so obviously concerned with melody and chord progressions. Above The High Rays combines fleeting emotions of loneliness and sorrow with a certain pained joy in greeting the new dawn after a rainy night, when the milky sunlit clouds seem to promise a temporary respite from your pain. For Dennis Tyfus, it’s all about the sound she makes; in one vivid image, he likens it to a battery-operated keyboard that’s running out of power. The music was used for a screening of René Clair film, and the front cover drawings by Tyfus can’t help but remind us of Man Ray’s Glass Tears. I enjoyed this one, and although it’s still a little unformed and tentative in places, Miaux shows a good deal of promise. From September 2015.

Memory Forms

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Following The Night Parade (see here), another recent release by Joe Frawley is A Week of Fevers (JOE FRAWLEY MUSIC JFM-CD14) …having suggested he appeared to be relinquishing his earlier narrative style, I find there are traces of that approach still in evidence here. Piano tunes are still the backbone of the work, but Frawley illuminates them with the delicate sound-collages he does so well, in this instance using recordings from “unidentified individuals”, some salvaged magnetic tape recordings from the Chawner family, and public domain sources – perhaps sourced from YouTube, or any sound archive which has digitised its audio content and made it available online.

I would add that the sound collage this time is much more subtle than it ever has been; Frawley downplays story-telling and is content to evoke or suggest fleeting ideas with just the merest touch of sampling. Others have reworked old and damaged materials from the past – just recently we noted the Fossil Aerosol Mining Project who do just this – but I like to think Frawley has a sentimental attachment to these materials, and will only select choice items which stir a chord in his own nostalgic leanings, and he can thus be seen as a sympathetic foster parent for orphaned sounds. He’s also using collaging for the actual compositions; a number of published songs are used, and credited, as sources of samples or as the starting point for his own musical interpretations, and the shopping list includes such romantic tunes as ‘Meet Me in My Dreams Tonight’ and ‘I’ve Heard That Song Before’, both examples from the pre-war Golden Age of Tin Pan Alley songwriting.

I’ve previously likened him to Joseph Cornell, and he explicitly makes the same connection himself with the tune ‘NympWight, for Joseph Cornell’ which ends the album; and the collage cover art is a strong visual analogue to the music. Further, the very title A Week Of Fevers is surely a nod in the direction of A Week Of Kindness, the collage novel by Max Ernst and one of the guiding lights of all artists who use this technique. Of course to some degree Ernst intended to subvert the stuffy Edwardian past from which he clipped his engravings; Frawley’s intentions are more benign I would think, and he wishes to invoke kind spirits from history. True to its title, the album takes the form of a diary, with a track for each day of the week and the final revelatory chapter as track 8. From 17 December 2015.