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Philharmonics
Agnes Obel Philharmonics
Released 1 October 2010
Producer Agnes Obel
Label [PIAS] Recordings
Length 40:19
Genre Alternative
Website myspace.com/obelmusic
73

If PJ Harvey is the spinster queen of the dirty dirge and Tori Amos is a womanly wiccan of earthy orchestrals, Agnes Obel might very well be... well.... be some other affirmatively alliterative exercise in lazy journalism. She could easily be rural to Regina Spektor's urban, a more gossamer voiced Anja Garbarek, Joanna Newsom without the twee trappings, strangled cats and unicorns, or PJ (again) at her White Chalk, Is This Desire? most ethereally obtuse but honestly I'm not exactly sure, I mean I care for accurate appraisal but I'm not exactly sure that's the right path to wander.

It's, of course, a possibility that Obel might eventually attain a parity of success with artists as distinctive as Amos or Harvey (this is her first album and it's really quite good so who knows?) but it's unfortunately almost a definite that she'll undergo the above unenviable process of comparative journo scribbling, offering little about influence and real comparison, at best often reading like a who's who in contemporary female singer-songwriters and at worst like a set-list from second stage at Lilith Fair.

Me? Personally? I like to think there's, as of yet, something unquantifiable about Danish born Berlin based Obel. And that's exciting!

Signed to [PIAS] (a German label with an impressive cache of well known international acts alongside some home grown bounty) Obel first came to prominence when 'Just So' was used in a national T-mobile campaign. Almost an accident of exposure for a solitary songwriter who's clearly spent the requisite million hours lost in her own practice, recording music in her bedroom down through the years (some of Philharmonic's songs have been ten years in the making, she says). But even Obel points out that the sweetly melodic 'Just So' isn't necessarily a usual album entry. In fact, she's quick to distance herself from any conception of Scandinavian songstresses with a gift for a catchy pop hook and a dark twist.

Instead, carefully placed instrumentals stand beside more traditional song structures, with adventures in incidental music accompanied by harpsichords, pianos, cellos and celestas making for contemplative pieces and musical arrangements that are all at once fragile, insistent, powerful and stark. All of the album impresses and an evocative rendition of John Cale's 'Close Watch' is one standout track with another 'On Powdered Ground' quickly changing from wistful ballad to whispered warnings, almost as if Obel's ensuring the listener that she's more than capable of startling range without venturing into familiar territory. Familiar territory isn't really on the Philharmonic's agenda, however, and disquieting pieces like 'Riverside' and 'Over the Hill' seem to draw upon some long forgotten folklore of which only Obel is aware. A metaphor for an album all over, perhaps, that while beautiful to listen to is also upon a second glance wonderfully cryptic.

- Cormac O’Brien