Dolls Come To Life: The Groundskeeper’s Daughter

dctl_groundsA couple of years back, sound artist Joe Frawley and pianist/singer Michelle Cross put out the album Dolls Come to Life, and blew me away. Aside from having the most stunning re-imagined version of “My Favorite Things” you’ll ever hear, the album was full of amazing manipulations of sound and very large buckets of pure emotion. Frawley and Cross must have enjoyed it as much as I did, because here they are again, taking that album’s title as the name for their duo, and telling me the story of The Groundskeeper’s Daughter. The tale spools out in non-linear fashion over just under 40 minutes, and there is so very much to take in aside from the you-piece-it-together narrative. The foremost instrument here is Michelle Cross’ amazing voice. Plenty of singers can emote convincingly enough; when Michelle sings, it’s more like she has plunged her hand into her chest and pulled out warm, beating emotion to share with you. It feels incredibly personal and almost painfully vulnerable. I could listen to “The Violet Hour” over and over. It’s a powerful song, driven forward by hard-hammered piano and the kind of lyrical angularity I had previously compared (and still do) to Kate Bush. Cross sings in a strong voice, but when it comes down to an almost hesitant repetition of “I wonder if he’s okay” at the end, it’s turned into something small and concerned and beautiful. The voice is in the spotlight again on “Nightingale and the Rose,” taking its text from the Oscar Wilde poem of the same name and turning it into something like a madrigal. Long, low string notes underscore the otherwise a cappella recitation. The simplicity is gorgeous. Between the more distinct songs we enter into Frawley’s area, where even the briefest of sounds get pulled in close to be examined and turned into musical elements.  As always, he has a particular fascination with the intimate sound of breath; you’ll hear it at work on “And Dream of the Evening.” In this sound collage we get snippets of Cross’ dissected voice, parts of a vocal sample, and isolated piano notes reworked into new, mutated phrases. “Sundial” is another such exercise where Frawley treats his sounds like ghosts passing unseen to one another through the building scene. Piano phrases echoing, Cross humming, a man’s voice speaking, small random sounds–they exist here in individual moments that create the larger whole. Frawley and Cross have not only found a chemistry in their pairing, they have also struck a vital balance. While either could (and have) present their styles alone and be an excellent listen, putting them together amplifies their talent. I have enjoyed Frawley’s work, his sonic-collage approach, and since first hearing Cross’ voice on Dolls Come to Life, I have struggled to understand how she is not more widely appreciated. This is a major talent. Together, they pretty much tap all my listening pleasure centers: soaring vocals full of absolute emotion, intriguing sound worlds, depth and dimension–The Groundskeeper’s Daughter is an album I’ll have a hard time walking away from. After a number of listens I still feel like I hear something new each time through. A superb release with a lot to say. Go get this. Available from Bandcamp.

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