Joe Frawley uses music to show us visions through a fragmented lens and tell us stories where the pages have been torn and put back together in more or less the right way. On Cartomancer, the subject of the story is 19th century American astrologer and mathematician Olney H. Richmond, who devised a complicated methodology of using a deck of playing cards as a divination tool. Cartomancy has its followers to this day. Frawley interprets the tale via piano, mostly unaccompanied but placed in the midst of an atmosphere of manipulated sounds and his signature vocal snippets. The work is beautiful and haunting.”Arline’s Dream” opens the album firmly in familiar Frawley territory: bright piano, a moment of a woman’s voice, a snippet popping in as punctuation, a bold, heavy strum across piano strings. The narrative gets set here as we hear the woman turning our cards and explaining what they mean. (As one note of dissent, as is often the case, I could really have done without the sound of a crying baby.) The changeover to the lonely sound of the echoing piano in the title track, which follows, is particularly effective for the way its open, simple sound contrasts with the clutter of impressions that preceded it. Frawley plays with a core of one phrase and works in spirals around it. It’s a lovely solo piece that uses the instrument’s own resonant sound as fill. Frawley does a lot here with just the piano, or barely accompanied piano. On “The Magus” it pairs in a dramatic duet with ambient guitar textures from Greg Conte. The piece has a nice, improvised feel in places as the two trade phrases. The piano part feels like a sonata that takes on the occasional jazz frill. Each new chapter in this story gives us a new texture. “Trident and Pearl” has an Asian undertone, with plucked strings like a slowly played shamisen. Heavy, dramatic chords open “Upon this Rock…” and Frawley throws in a ringing hum like someone running their finger along the rim of a crystal glass, the jarring thud of something hitting the floor and bouncing, and an insectile buzz of string sounds. It’s ominous and weird and thematically potent. The kaleidoscopic dreamscape feeling returns for “The Mystic Test Book, or the Magic of the Playing Cards,” with more vocal drops and snippets coming in and out, and the piano speaking in short phrases. “Leda and the Swan” comes in honking and flapping courtesy of field recordings. We get more of Kay Pere’s melodic, almost ghostly humming, and Conte streams in his lines to add a slightly discordant edge.
I am, admittedly, a big fan of Frawley’s work, and Cartomancer does a lot to solidify that. The work has, if I may, a hypnagogic quality, that in-and-out-of-dreams flow, that not-quite-real structure. And around it Frawley places truly beautiful work. The solo (or nearly solo) piano pieces reveal the emotional truth that underscores his playing. By bringing that together with the mindset of a sonic sculptor looking to make challenging modern structures, he creates a unique artistic vision that fascinates me—every time.
Available at Bandcamp.