Album review: Oly Ralfe – Notes From Another Sea

by Thomas Blake

Oly Ralfe’s piano credentials are undoubted: as the more song-oriented Ralfe Band he created graceful, slightly off-kilter pop, often built around wonky piano melodies whose influences veered from the wild west to the far east, fleshed out with full band backing. But on his first official solo outing he’s taken his instrument and isolated it, in an attempt to find its essence. It is a series of ostensibly introverted studies, stripped away from everything except for that moment of contact between finger and key, and the emotion that can pass between the two.

This is a seriously piano-y piano album. So much ivory that Ralfe could be successfully prosecuted as an elephant poacher. There are two ways you can approach and appraise it. The short track lengths lull you into thinking that these are just Ralfe Band songs with their clothes taken off. Pop music boiled down to its formative cells. But that would be doing Ralfe a disservice as a composer and a performer. This kind of music demands a kind of immersion on the part of the listener to enable it to be appreciated as a complete work. Get to the end, and listen again, and you will hear an overall aesthetic emerge. It is an aesthetic of Romanticism, but it is arrived at in ingenious ways, often via compositional techniques learned from modernism. In this way it is an heir to the work of both Chopin and Satie, and sits comfortably beside the piano works of Yann Tiersen.

It is infused, like so much solo piano music, with palpable melancholy. But like Tiersen, Ralfe has the natural and unpindownable sense for a sudden moment of melodic rapture. That he can pull it off continuously over a series of three-minute bursts, and with enough variation to keep you interested for fourteen tracks is seriously admirable. Icy landscapes (The Swallow Sleeps All Winter and A Forest In The City) sit comfortably alongside pretty (and very French-sounding) waltzes like On My Train and Lantern Waltz. It’s all very lovely, but more than that, it’s an assured set of mini-compositions that bridge the gap between pop and neo-classical without any of the frivolity that either of those genre labels implies.