AGNES OBEL: PHILHARMONICS (2010)
1) Falling, Catching; 2) Riverside; 3) Brother Sparrow; 4) Just So; 5) Beast; 6) Louretta; 7) Avenue; 8) Philharmonics; 9) Close Watch; 10) Wallflower; 11) Over The Hill; 12) On Powdered Ground.
Say what you will about the coming of the electronic age, but still, no wonders of electronic programming can beat the smooth-but-strong ripple of a real piano, particularly when the player shows both heart and experience. The first track on this album is just a short and humble instrumental, written (like much of the album) under the huge influence of the old impressionists (particularly Satie), but there is something about the tone, about the sharp staccato playing, about the composition — starting somewhere in the middle of the keyboard and then gradually, gracefully sloping away to the high-pitched right — that has a certain immediate appeal. Piano introductions by themselves are not rare at all, but this is not the kind of generic «ooh, I like piano! Elton's my favorite!» introduction you'd hear on, say, an Alicia Keys record.
Agnes Obel is different — a quiet, enigmatic performer from Denmark (with an excellent command of English, though) who seems to know very well just how far you can push your enigma in order to remain «artsy» without becoming irritatingly cheap. Of course, these days the market is overstocked with Femme Fatales and Mystery Women of all varieties, some of them with a very good idea of which particular brands of Mystery Lipstick and Fatalistic Drapery are better converted into YouTube views and MTV Awards (Lana Del Rey, here's looking at you). Agnes Obel is not entirely free from the «sin» of calculating her own image, either — but her calculations, based on a mix of minimalism, humility, aural and visual nostalgia, and exquisite attention to minor subtle detail, are... well, simply put, these are my kinds of calculation.
She is quiet, moody, melancholic, somewhat (but not painfully) monotonous, and does not awaken any hitherto unknown emotions — from Joni Mitchell to Kate Bush to Sinead O'Connor to tons of other female performers I could come up with, we've already felt these emotions. But she has her own style of minimalistic chamber pop, more classically inspired than anybody I know, and at the same time, a good ear for pop hooks: if, upon first listen, none of these songs strike you as catchy, this will probably be due to the barebones arrangements that do not vary too much from song to song. In fact, many customer reviews I've seen for this one essentially treat Philharmonics as a pleasant background-listening ambient album — but it's not; each of these songs is a carefully crafted composition in its own right, you just have to warm up to them a bit, like you might have to warm up to Debussy's preludes if your previous ideal of classical solo piano was Chopin's mazurkas.
Perhaps the first single from the album, ʽRiversideʼ, was not fully indicative of the album's charm. It is, after all, a fairly simple folk-waltz, with nothing but a simple piano line and some multi-tracked vocal harmonies to keep you occupied; even so, it still manages to sound nothing like your average indie-folkie-singer-songwriter churning out generic heartbreaker stuff (to be used in the soundtrack to your average indie-director melodramas about uninteresting problems in the lives of everyday boring people). There's melancholy here, but no moping or whining, no self-aggrandizing and no artificial struggle to show you great, great depth — it's very light, simple, tasteful, unassuming, and unavoidably endearing just on the strength of what it is not, rather than of what it is (okay, that probably sounds dumb, but not while the actual song is playing).
But it actually gets better. On ʽBrother Sparrowʼ, we have a piano/guitar duet, with the two instruments gracefully completing each other, and Obel's vocals mimicking the piano line all the way to a logical and satisfying melodic resolution — there's a sort of frosty-friendly beauty here, as if she were writing the soundtrack to the everyday life of a real flesh-and-blood Cinderella with free access to her late mother's old collection of Satie records. On ʽJust Soʼ, which I can very well imagine as a triumphant power pop anthem (here deconstructed right down to its knickers), there's a piano-and-what-sounds-like-plucked-violin duet instead, with the former gradually drowning out the latter.
On ʽBeastʼ, I don't even understand what the instrumentation is — in concert, she performs it as a piano/cello duet, but here the first instrument sounds more like a harp, so I guess it's more of a piano/harp duet, with one instrument blending in with the other seamlessly, until the cello comes midway through and cuts right between them; also, I'd never have guessed that a refrain with lines like "let's go tonight, let the beast run a mile" could sound haunting, but here it is delivered so coldly and casually that it is haunting. ʽAvenueʼ, another old-fashioned waltz, has a tinge of the musical box to it, but only a faint one, to better attenuate the sad chord change on the "nothing more you need to know, nothing more you need to show" refrain; then the title track is another waltz, but with an entirely different feel to it — a sad, but not broken-hearted obituary to "the only God of mine" who "died last night in grey stockings, in all might", whoever she is singing about (an old lover or an unrealized ideal).
For an artist who composes most of the material on her/his own, the choice of occasional covers can also be important — Obel chooses ʽClose Watchʼ, a song from John Cale's Music For A New Society, which, amusingly, she actually makes a bit more musically complex than it was in the original version, adding a tighter rhythm, some percussion, vocal overdubs, and echo: the result is tightly controlled chamber-pop perfection, compared to the looser, more rambling performance from John — not sure if he'd like this or not, but, anyway, it's telling that of all members of The Velvet Underground, she prefers Cale and not Lou Reed (and not even Nico, despite being a bit of a frigid Scandinavian goddess herself).
If the album has any sort of internal logic of development, it is best seen on the final track: ʽOn Powdered Groundʼ is just a touch grander and fuller than everything else, with a very distinctive, pleading cello track and a final bequest to all of us — "don't break your back on the track", she keeps repeating, as if she were some deeply caring Mother-of-all wishing us a safe journey through life. Indeed, the whole album gives a somewhat Taoist impression of a recluse in the middle of the forest, struggling to live in peace with the universe despite the universe threatening to shatter that peace if you ever let him. It's a perfect little album for all those who just want to stop for a while, break the vicious circle of eternal karma, lose themselves in an atmosphere of quietude and immanent beauty — okay, so a Brian Eno ambient album may be the best solution here, but if you are really not the meditative type, Philharmonics might do a great job of serving as the next best substitute. Oh, and she's got great taste in clothes, too. Thumbs up.