Agnes Obel, St Pancras Old Church | New music reviews, news & interviews
Agnes Obel, St Pancras Old Church
Measured melancholy from Danish singer-songwriter previewing her new album
In the half light of a small medieval church tucked behind London's St Pancras Station, a figure in white plays melancholy songs at a grand piano to the accompaniment of a cellist and violinist. This chamber ensemble had an audience of 84. The atmosphere of this special concert contrasted starkly with the close, humid and overhot day which led up to it.
Denmark’s Agnes Obel had arrived in London to perform a month before the release of her second album, Aventine. Taking its name from one of Rome’s seven hills, the songs on the album – even in this live setting – already feel ageless. They could soundtrack a landscape of neglected buildings, truncated columns and rubble.
Interlacing new songs with old revealed how her songwriting has evolved
Obel’s sound-world in hermetic. On stage she introduced few songs and didn’t speak much. The slightly apologetic manner of her last London show had evaporated. With the tentativeness eradicated, this was a consummate, measured performance. Of course, the extraordinary setting helped.
Although its inevitable surface characterisations might position Obel as a glass-voiced Scandinavian singer to be filed near Regina Spektor, her voice is unique. In France, her first album, 2010’s Philharmonics, achieved platinum status and clearly touched a chord in the national psyche. This may be to do with a pre-rock backbone running through all her songs. Last night, the arrangement of “The Curse” was closer to a stripped-down take on the “Marche au supplice” segment of Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique than any standard singer-songwriter fare.
The set unsurprisingly weighed more heavily towards Aventine than Philharmonics: an eight-to-five balance. Interlacing the new with the old revealed how her songwriting has evolved. Philharmonics’s "Riverside", “Wallflower" and the album’s title track are structured around rolling, wave-like piano arpeggios played with the left hand; Aventine's newer songs sound as though they were written with less consideration for how they would be underpinned, and are more about melody. The rhythmic pulse is still there, but less forcefully. “Fuel to Fire” and “Words are Dead” have more complex, yet still instantly striking melodies than her older songs.
The new expansiveness impacted on the earlier work. "Beast" acquired a fresh turbulence, matching the concentrated drama of Aventine’s “Dorian”. Compared with her last London outing, Obel was more precise and had a greater rapport with the musicians accompanying her. Anne Müller’s cello and Mika Posen’s (of Canadian band Timbre Timbre) viola and violin are both integral to Aventine and on stage their relationship to Obel and the songs was symbiotic.
Obel has reached deep for Aventine, but she doesn’t shout. Her songs, whether performed live or heard in their studio versions, are stately. This is what helps her contemplations stand apart. Perhaps now, after the impact of her country’s similarly unhurried The Killing paving the way on television, Britain could begin sharing France’s empathy with this Dane’s music. Stranger things have happened.
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