Nils Frahm is no stranger to minimalism, but on Old Friends New Friends, the Berlin-based pianist and composer homes in on every tiny detail. Over the course of the 80-minute solo piano record, he gives each note ample space to ring, relishing the pauses as much as the simple melodies. It’s telling that he opens the album with a hushed (but hardly silent) tribute to John Cage’s 4’33”: This is a subtle, introspective album that encourages us to listen to the minutiae as much as the whole picture.
Old Friends New Friends brings together 12 years of archival material that didn’t make it onto Frahm’s previous albums. Each track highlights his gentle piano playing. Rather than the cavernous, enrapturing sound he harnesses on albums like 2018’s All Melody, these recordings are closer to his other piano-focused albums, like 2015’s Solo, but still more pared down. He explores a range of shades of post-classical and ambient minimalism. But the music stays steady in its wistful atmosphere, centered on just Frahm, his piano, and the tactile quality of the recording.
At points, the piano is more of a background character than a protagonist. Frahm weighs silence and music equally, letting extraneous sounds ring as clearly as notes. During pieces like “Late” and “Berduxa,” his audible breath and the piano’s pedals become characters in the music, sounding with almost as much strength as the rounded tones he plays. It fosters a sense of presence, as if we were right there in Frahm’s living room. This coziness takes different forms across the record. On “Strickleiter,” Frahm’s gossamer melody sounds like a music box; on “The Idea Machine,” the piano sounds like it’s being run through a rickety old film projector, notes shrouded in fuzz. It feels as if we’re watching Frahm play on a black and white screen.
Nostalgia and intimacy suit Frahm’s compositional style, which relies on tugging at the heartstrings. But at times, the surfeit of feeling is overbearing. “Then Patterns” moves sluggishly, repeating a bright melody that seems out of place with the album’s gentle melancholy; “Forgetmenot” puts Frahm’s rolling piano melodies in the background, washing them out with static and echoes. “Weddinger Walzer” takes on a somber classical style, like a slowed-down waltz that’s meant to be in the background of a dinner party rather than stand on its own. In these pieces, Frahm’s tenderness turns sappy.
With pieces like “Iced Wood,” though, Frahm’s music goes deeper. This is one of the album’s moodiest tracks and most engaging moments. Here, Frahm swaps barely-there melodies for a richer sound. A low, distant ripple blossoms and fades away as the piano’s pedals gently tap alongside it. It’s in tracks like this that the music feels most three-dimensional, a reminder that simplicity doesn’t always need to forgo depth. Here, the piano grows from a thin whisper into a warm murmur with just a couple notes and a subtle change in dynamics. It’s in these tiny, almost undetectable changes that the music becomes radiant.
Buy: Rough Trade
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