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Three songs you need to hear: Sean Michaels’s playlist of the week

Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.

Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang – Brahms’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 in G, 2nd movement (2014)

Kavakos is a tall violinist, charmed and somehow ungainly. Wang is a pianist, small and dark, with a technique that matches sternness with supple feeling. Playing together, they are still beautifully, movingly discrete: two voices that part and reunite, separately speaking.

This sonata’s adagio section does too many things to sum up so briefly. It is bold-hearted and pensive, cordial and mourning, but above all it is free in its movements. Every change and repetition feels willful, chosen; two musicians awake to the outpouring of their lives.

When I saw Kavakos and Yang play it in Edinburgh this week, in the Queen’s Hall’s cloud-scoured sunlight, I felt like the luckiest person on earth.

Frog Eyes – Death’s Ship (2015)

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Weird to hear an act as unhinged as Frog Eyes hitching its hitch-hook to jauntiness. Carey Mercer’s still panting and bragging like a gimlet-eyed longshoreman, but there’s also a healthy fiddler here, cherry-cheeked, playing a ditty. Newcomers to Frog Eyes might not realize this is one of the country’s most untamed bands, brave as prows’ figureheads: Here their music’s almost pleasant. (It’s telling that for Frog Eyes this seems like a backhanded compliment.) “This is a song for a wildcat!” Mercer exclaims. “Well, my notebooks were blue as your peacocks were blue!” Death’s Ship is a saga of art and menagerie, nautical metaphors, tumbledown drums pointing a slender skiff through the rocks.

Destroyer – Times Square, Poison Season I (2015)

My favourite part of Destroyer’s sumptuous, strings-and-bongo-laden new album is its opening track. Times Square, Poison Season I is a kind of overture: It introduces the record’s themes and leitmotifs, lets you hear its most important lyric for the first time. “Times Square!” Dan Bejar enounces, chewing the scenery, relishing the diphthong, turning the phrase’s two syllables into three. It’s a phrase you hear again and again on the rest of the LP, and it begins to start to come apart in your mind. Time’s square? Times squared?

But my favourite part of Poison Season I is the stuff that happens on this track and not quite anywhere else: the sighing synth; the bare, eerie piano motif; the thick, expressive strings, carrying more weight (and more grace) than they’re later permitted to. Bejar begins with the word “Jesus” and ends with the words “Times Square!” but the poetry that happens in between feels drawn and quartered, measured line by line. Each lyric is a balance of nonsense and intent, like notes to confuse a future descendant. “Just forces of nature / in love with a weather station,” and Bejar’s like Van Morrison or Nico or Captain Beefheart, singing a strange canticle, interpreting the part of us that’s almost illegible.

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