Such is the exceptionally sparse nature of Agnes Obel’s debut album that it slips by almost unnoticed lest you lend it a distraction-free, focused ear. It is highly advisable you do so: the compositions that lie within are slow, sombre, sepulchral even, but not without a sense of occasionally singular beauty. A case in point is Riverside, which follows the instrumental Falling, Catching as the first song proper. Entirely built around piano and voice, its soft pleas for solitude and escape are utterly disarming, Obel’s mournful lyric as chilled as the body of water she’s inexplicably drawn to.
Philharmonics is a resolutely early hours affair; a kind of Scandinavian counterpart to the British duo Felix’s wonderful You Are the One I Pick of last year. But where that record generally eschewed structure in favour of dark flights into the surreal, Obel keeps things tight and lean here. Such elements as percussion and auxiliary instrumentation rarely impinge on these songs, and when they do it is sometimes difficult to tell (one notable exception being her meditative cover of John Cale’s I Keep a Close Watch, here simply titled Close Watch).
Oddly for an album that dabbles in such twilit, shadowy waters, it supplied communications giant Deutsche Telekom with music for their recent advertising campaign in Germany, which is where the Copenhagen-born Obel now resides. Just So is the track in question, and while its bright melodies and straightforward lyrics sit at odds with the surrounding, songs like this and Brother Sparrow do furnish Philharmonics some much-needed lightness.
Elsewhere, the title-track engages and unsettles in equal measure, returning to the theme of inescapable tides that opened the album (its first line is particularly striking – "Guess who died last night," Obel coos), while Over the Hill is probably the most traditionally pretty song at a slight three minutes. Obel’s sedative tones are the constant, and though Philharmonics’ deliberate arrangements veer close to the lugubrious at times, they’re capable of some genuinely mesmeric turns.
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