In my corner of the world, a harsh, feverish summer has finally given way to a crisp fall. The heat still hangs in the air from time to time, a reminder of long days when traveling outdoors was a trial. During those triple digit degree days, I found respite in night-time bike rides, observing the stars as the wind sped along my face. I always listen to music while biking, but my companion for nearly all of these adventures was Nils Frahm’s iteration of the Late Night Tales series.
Late Night Tales works in the same way as the DJ-Kicks series: an artist is asked to stitch and entwine songs from their own collection into a contentious play list, that, at its best, sounds like one unending track. The DJ-Kicks series might have had their best ever outing this year with DJ Koze’s brilliant mix and Late Night Tales has found similar magic with German pianist Frahm. While Koze played in lounging tempos, Frahm takes it to an even lower BPM, finding a more meditative place where Koze found body movement. All we need now is a hyper-kinetic mix from a colorful producer like Rustie or Lone, and a trifecta will be complete.
Don’t mistake Frahm’s relaxed tempos for a relaxed mindset. After a cheeky take on the famously taciturn “4:33”, Frahm unveils the haunting “Liquindi 2”, with most of the sounds coming from splashing and clapping the surface of water. But with just a hint of rising synths in the background, it becomes terrifying. There’s also the jarring mix of Gene Autry’s haunting country paired with Frahm’s slowed-down take on Boards of Canada’s “In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country”, finding a commonality between two songs separated by continents, decades, and genres.
That’s the core magic of Late Night Tales, you get to hear Frahm stitch together a common DNA from 22 songs that really have nothing to do with each other. How else did Nina Simone wind up next to the Penguin Café Orchestra? Speaking of the Orchestra’s input, Frahm’s most impressive pairing comes from the mixing of saxophone master Colin Stetson and the Penguin Café. Stetson’s fiery solo playing on “The Righteous Wrath of an Honorable Man” is the only frenetic track here, but it still fits within Frahm’s late-night, deep dive mood thanks to the fluttering noises that cascade out of Stetson’s instrument. And, miraculously, the chiming drums that open “Cutting Branches for a Temporary Shelter” match up perfectly with Stetson’s flickering notes. Two songs of opposite tempers, bound by a genius at the soundboard.
This is a Nils Frahm album, so there are bound to be moments of sheer beauty here. The two upfront examples both come from Miles Davis. Usually on a release like this it’s one track per artists, but not only is Frahm a devotee of Davis, but it is completely justified. No other songs quite get the same feeling of pure midnight as Davis’ two tracks, “Concierto de Aranjuez” marching along stoically and the opening horn coo of “Générique” calling to a misty night. There’s a strong feeling that, were it up to Frahm, he would have just filled the album with Davis cuts.
The real center here, outside of Davis, is the most simplistic and most entrancing song: Nina Simone’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”. Obviously you can never go wrong with Simone on a play list, but, thanks to its placement toward the end of the album (and right after “Cutting Branches for a Temporary Shelter”) it hints at the coming dawn. Light guitar sings alongside Simone’s tired, but hopeful, voice. It’s a stunningly warm song, a reminder that the night is darkest just before the dawn.
“Who Knows Where the Time Goes” also speaks to the key theme of Late Night Tales: the concept of time. Stories that are woven in the wee early hours of the morning take on a magical edge that fight the passage of time with ease. Frahm, in his curating and crafting, has made something that demands to be listened to as a full album, because it is a buoyant, graceful capsule untethered by time.