Frowny Frown(The Stone, New York, 16 July 2019. Review by Dan Bergsagel)
Halfway through the second piece I nearly started crying. I had accepted that – however well produced – no recording could ever be as perfect as this moment. And it was sad.
Admittedly I’m prone to unexpected emotion, but this preemptive sorrow for a fleeting moment that can’t be recreated is unusual, particularly if it has still not passed. I’m aware this sounds ridiculous and melodramatic, but Frowny Frown at The Stone was one of those rare occasions when things just fell into place.
Frowny Frown (Illustration by Aaron Novik)
This was Aaron Novik opening up his week-long residency to mark the release of The Fallow Curves of the Planospheres, itself a form of way-finding for five separate EPs produced by five separate Novik projects, each of different style and substance catering to different Novik moments over the last five years as he switched from West Coast to East, via the North European Plain.
Frowny Frown is a little different, though. It was a decade in the making, and is the first instalment of a planned hexalogy, largely eschewing the digital world to be rooted in paper and vinyl and live concerts instead.
It is also often a series of developments which culminate in a bustling, carefully layered cacophonous onslaught. Starting with only pumped keys and a sole vocal lament, it is plaintively beautiful and crisp. As a second voice, double bass, and finally the rest of the 10-piece ensemble move in, we’re up to full strength.
The Frowny Frown sound is hard to pin down, but certainly tips it’s cap to others: the swooping reeds and beats of Jaga Jazzist, the climactic triumphalism of Snarky Puppy, the attention span of Zappa, the vocal orchestration of Le Bruit du Sign, the pop cunning of Bowie. It feels like a development of some of Novik’s work with Colin Stetson and Fred Frith, but like he’s been hanging out with Lars Horntveth.
Frowny Frown’s core sound is crafted around two things: the constantly cycling, restless phases of the compositions; and the attention to the soundscape. Novik’s looping bass clarinet is evocative of this narrative music, and paired with Ava Mendoza‘s lightly overdriven guitar, Michael Coleman‘s pedal-distorted Casio keyboard, vocalists Michelle Amador and Dina Maccabee judiciously using loudhailers to distort their sound (more versatile than any synth), and the resonant pop of Ches Smith‘s congas (absolutely crucial to this live setup), it’s a wonderful finely textured thing.
So, back to my tears, nearly brought on through a triumphant slow build song which started with the group all furiously clapping and developed into a semi-spiritual epiphany. After the gig I went straight home to put on the vinyl and thumb through the accompanying comic book (full of rainbow images carefully crafted from thin, partially overlapping coloured pen, much like the song constructions). I was right, in that the emphatic Milton Chromogram live moment couldn’t be captured again on a polished, differently arranged record. Indeed, the vinyl doesn’t even try to; it is a whole different ball game, but an excellent and rewarding one nonetheless.
The small hand-crafted comic book leaves some hints to this. A metaphysical narrative is formed around a set of universes where, amongst other characters, one Aaron Novik struggles to finish Frowny Frown between more commercial output, but the stories music and world outlooks and interpretations are constantly changing with new perspectives. From whichever perspective you catch Frowny Frown, it will be different and excellent. The vinyl is great, but I’d suggest that – in search of that elusive moment – sometimes you should try and catch them live.