Mirabel was her name. Three syllables that, together—when formed by both lips and tongue—bring a bygone world back into sharp focus. An old and lovely name, Mirabel, one that has sadly fallen out of fashion.
When Tom Fraser’s grandfather died 30 or so years ago, the Edinburgh musician set about clearing out his house. On the street, he found an old, scratched Transco record. He brought it home. After it sat on a shelf in Fraser’s house for years, the disc and its story—Mirabel’s story—bounded back to life during lockdown, when it was played for the first time in decades.
Mirabel Lomer—“Mirry” for short—was born almost a century ago, in 1906, to a military family, and her tale is one of paths untaken, of seeking a way of expressing yourself while burdened by your circumstances, hindered by the reality that is an every-day, hard-working life. Mirry was Tom Fraser’s great aunt, and that scratched record found on the street was full of her secrets.
Actively discouraged from playing music in the family home, Mirry—in an act of quiet rebellion and creative escape, and with the help of her nephew and confidant Geoffrey—secretly committed her songs to tape. And it is her simple piano compositions that form the backbone of this wondrous collection.
After he first moved the tonearm over that old Transco record, Fraser set about reworking and remixing Mirry’s compositions with Simon Tong, known for his work with, among others, The Verve and The Good, The Bad & The Queen. Together with project curator Kirsteen McNish, Fraser and Tong (brothers-in-law, thereby making this even more of a familial labor of love) have created a touching celebration of Mirabel Lomer’s work, a call-and-response collection of her original recordings with her family members.
Fans of Gavin Bryars, The Caretaker, and Virginia Astley take note. The album offers a rich tapestry of sounds, as Fraser and Tong layer new instrumentation and field recordings over crackly piano notes provided by Mirry. “Anthem,” the opening track, almost instantly transports you to times past. Hearing the rich detail so very present in the music, it’s not hard to imagine you’re at a tea dance in the 1920s, as the band plays to a lively Irish hotel ballroom. Or at home—just having stoked the fire, as the floorboards creak and the carriage clock chimes on the mantelpiece—a saxophone plays wistfully while dust motes dance in the milky sunlight filtering in through the net curtains.
Mirry is the kind of record that takes you places. In “Idyll,” you find yourself in a woodland, listening to a babbling brook while birds chirp in the near distance. During “Study in F,” you are on the banks of the Spree river in Berlin, witnessing a lesson in sonic decay, as the tenderness slowly mutates into a woozy, aurally submerged techno afterparty (by way of Nils Frahm’s Spaces). Meanwhile, “Reverie” really shouldn’t work at all, what with its 1970s futuristic bleeps, drones, recordings of raindrops, a fretless bass synth and echoes of a brass band all layered over Mirry’s gentle piano, which seems to glide effortlessly above all else. But work it does.
These are sounds that dip in and out—of time and of place—and the result is the sonic equivalent of upending an old shoebox filled with faded photographs and mementos. What other histories do our houses harbor? And what are we likely to find at the bottom of drawers and at the back of wardrobes?
Mirabel was her name. It means “of wondrous beauty.” Appropriate words for a special collection of songs.| a tobin