I don’t tend to remember dreams upon waking but recently I had a very vivid and totally mundane one about the late British DJ John Peel, in which I basically stood in a corner of his studio whilst he broadcast a show. It’s not the most likely scenario for a dream admittedly but I think there was a very clear influence at work: I fell asleep listening to Nils Frahm‘s LateNightTales compilation. With its combination of tracks played at the wrong speed, ghostly 78s and the occasional blast of techno, Frahm’s mix shares several elements with Peel’s radio shows but as you might expect Frahm brings a lot more to this hour or so of nocturnal listening.
One of the challenges facing LateNightTales, a series which has been going for nearly 15 years, is the competition from the increasing number of streaming services. To counter being merely the physical edition of an artist’s Spotify playlist, these compilations are becoming increasingly creative in approach. LateNightTales has a couple of elements in its favour which has seen it outlive the likes of Back To Mine, The Trip and Under The Influence – firstly, there’s an exclusive track to tempt the obsessive fans (and a short story or poem at the end if you want your spoken word fix), and secondly, the choice of curators throughout the series has been made with thought and consideration. Even when dabbling with the mainstream indie elite the results have been interesting and often surprising (Snow Patrol’s selection opened with a one-two of Captain Beefheart and A Tribe Called Quest; Belle & Sebastian’s second contribution featured a pair of Broadcast tracks).
This year has seen the series move away from indie types and head a bit leftfield, firstly with electronic producer du jour Jon Hopkins, and now with ambient / classical man of the moment Nils Frahm – following a month or so on from his sell-out appearance at the Proms in London’s Royal Albert Hall, which raised his profile in the UK at least. It’s not just a good choice because of the timing, however, but Frahm brings a real creative spark to the process. Whilst other albums in the series demonstrate the compiler’s ability to dig a little deeper and then cross-fade one track into another, Frahm really engages with the process, chopping, slicing and editing tracks with the result being the strongest LateNightTales mix thus far.
Opening with a ‘cover’ of John Cage’s 4’33” is an eye-catching move and although the track works as an introduction, it doesn’t – if we’re being honest – work as an interpretation of Cage. Rather than focusing on the absence of music, Frahm fills the void with a piano improvisation. Essentially, then, it’s a new Nils Frahm piece with royalties going to Cage’s estate, and given their occasionally litigious attitude to musicians who have tried to copy the silence idea, one wonders what they will make of someone playing all over the piece. From there, it’s a gentle progression through subtle African percussion, dark ambient jazz, and the ghost of Gene Autry breaking into Four Tet‘s beats before the pairing of two LateNightTales favourites, Boards of Canada (“In A Beautiful Place…” played at the wrong speed) and Bibio sharpen the focus and Dictaphone‘s “Peaks”, a gently swinging track, plays out pretty much untouched.
The variety in the opening sequence is continued throughout, with the overall vibe sounding like an alternate soundtrack to The Shining, interspersed with the crisply digital sound of dub techno. It’s arguably the most diverse set of tunes assembled on a LateNightTales – and that’s up against some pretty tough competition. Frahm isn’t just throwing random tracks against each other, however, and many of the choices can be connected back to his own compositions – on top of which he provides the odd little snippet to knit the odder transitions together. It’s cumulatively powerful stuff – and even then, Nina Simone‘s version of “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” is enough to stop this reviewer in his tracks. It’s indicative of Frahm’s sense of humour that he follows this with a recording of a friend’s elderly cat. On the evidence of an hour or so listening to Frahm’s choices, it’s clear than he has more ideas than a single disc can contain – let’s hope some visionary radio station signs him up for weekly installments, where he can play 78s, dub and tracks at the wrong speed to his heart’s content and the listeners’ delight. (Jeremy Bye)