Thursday, 26 March 2020

Woodkid & Nils Frahm, Robert De Niro ‎– Ellis (2016)

Style: Experimental, Abstract, Ambient, Downtempo
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Erased Tapes Records

1.   Winter Morning I
2.   Winter Morning II

Conductor – Stéphane Gaubert
Vocals – Robert De Niro
Double Bass – Lucas Henri
Cello – Cyrille Lacrouts, Frédéric Deville
Viola – Camille Borsarello, Christophe Briquet
Recorded By, Mixed By, Mastered By – Nils Frahm
Piano, Harmonium, Chimes, Synthesizer – Nils Frahm
Violin – Benjamin Fabre, Jacques Gandard, Lea Vandenhelsken, Sayaka Fabre
Ellis is a short film about the famous New York island of the same name. For 60 years, Ellis Island was the main entry point into the United States for immigrants, a place where dreams could come true or go south in seconds. Now the home of a museum and the subject of a restoration campaign, it's a potent symbol for a Western world mired in ugly debates over immigration and the rights of refugees. The film Ellis is narrated by Robert De Niro and scored by Woodkid, AKA Yoann Lemoine, with help from Erased Tapes stalwart Nils Frahm. 
The first track was composed by Lemoine with Frahm on piano. You can tell that Frahm wasn't the primary writer—the chilly stillness is far removed from the German composer's sweeping sentimentality. But you can tell that Frahm is playing it, evident in his way of extracting otherworldly beauty from simple means (you could hear this on his Screws, a solo piano album recorded when Frahm had a broken thumb). The effect is also helped by subtle manipulations and a highly detailed recording. Each note warbles uneasily, and every movement inside the piano is audible. The orchestral flourish at the end risks mawkishness, but for most of its nine minutes the piece is as haunting and evocative as the imagery it accompanies. 
At 15 minutes, the second, longer section features a monologue from Robert DeNiro and an even more pared-back approach to instrumentation. Recorded when Frahm was at a loose end, after a trip to Brussels was cancelled in the wake of the airport bombing, the piece moves with a melancholy that, again, feels unusually subtle for Frahm. Here, he prefers the harmonium over the piano, letting it move from a low rumble to a more melodic swell in a gradual expression of Lemoine's melody. 
De Niro narrates a tale of being turned away at the border and told to "go back home." As with the first part, "Winter Morning II" borders on the maudlin, but its subject matter is powerful in a geopolitical climate torn apart by fear and xenophobia. Ellis is among the simpler and more delicate works we've heard from Frahm, and it's obviously a soundtrack, sounding modest without its visual accompaniment. But there's a nuanced desolation to the way you can hear every detail of the reverb in these recordings. They capture the melancholic apprehension of chasing something new and unfamiliar with no idea what might happen next.
Andrew Ryce / Resident Advisor

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