Originally released towards the back end of 2010, the austere charm of Danish-born and Berlin-based singer songwriter Agnes Obel’s debut album has seen it dominate charts across the continent, gracing top ten best seller lists on France and the Netherlands, and sitting at number one in her patria for seven weeks. In case its UK release passed you by I wouldn’t worry; it’s fair to say that, despite warm critical acclaim, coverage and public reaction in the UK has been more restrained than across the channel. This re-release is unlikely to address that, but will hopefully serve to give an assured and richly textured debut the additional attention it deserves.
Aged 29 when Philharmonics was released, Agnes had the break that so many talented unknowns must dream of, when a Berlin advertising exec stumbled across one of her MySpace demos (apparently some people still use the site) and paired it with a mobile phone ad. Whilst not the most glamorous route to fame it did put her on the radar of Thomas Vinterberg, co-founder of the Dogme 95 movement. Thus followed demos featuring in his film Submarino, and Agnes receiving a Robert award (essentially a Danish Oscar) for song of the year. Fuelled by word-of-mouth, the album has since worked its way into the ears and hearts of many a critic across Europe.
Much has been made of the sparse arrangements on offer and rightly so. Entirely self-penned (apart from one cover) and arranged by Obel, a minimalist aesthetic runs through the music, suffusing not only the orchestration but also Obel’s vocal, and even the artwork (it’s worth checking out the full size version of the album sleeve on Agnes’ Facebook page, particularly if you like a good owl shot). It’s all combined to great effect, conjuring a sonic landscape in which silence and space play as important a role as the music itself.
The album opens with the piano instrumental ‘Falling Catching’, an exercise in minimalism as undulating arpeggios and skittering acciaccaturas evoke shards of ice gradually dissolving in the creek that takes centre stage on the subsequent track, ‘Riverside’. It’s here we are introduced to Obel’s vocal and unconventional but hugely effective harmonies. Her voice calls to mind a number of other artists, at times Laura Viers, at times Nina Nastasia or even Laura Cantrelle, although you’d need to leave the tapes cooling in the freezer for a while to obtain the requisite degree of fragility, so relaxed it’s almost medicated. Another artist called to mind is Joanna Newsome, someone Philharmonics owes a clear debt to, from the omnipresence of nature, to the harp cameos and lyrical delivery itself, all seen clearest on ‘Beast’.
Other highlights include the effortlessly catchy ‘Just So’, featuring backing vocals from Alex Flagstad that call to mind ‘Only Skin’, the Callahan and Newsome duet from Ys, a cover of John Cale’s ‘Close Watch’ and the closing track ‘On Powdered Ground’ where “all is melting like the snow’, gracefully linking us thematically to the album’s opening.
This new ‘deluxe’ version offers up six additional live tracks, four of which do not appear on the album, and five piano sessions, essentially instrumental versions of songs on Philharmonics. It’s a bit of a shame as the additional live tracks, whilst well performed, aren’t as good as what was on offer previously, save for 'Katie Cruel', a traditional American folksong. The less said about the piano sessions the better; what makes the rest of the album’s minimalism so captivating is the precisely measured combination of a handful of instruments, bound by Obel’s vocals and some excellent song writing. When these elements are stripped back, we are left with the bare bones, waiting for some substance to be applied.
Whilst this re-issue will be a welcome release for those who may have missed the Philharmonics boat the first time round, there’s a sense that it may have been better to hold back; if anyone knows that less is more, that should be Agnes.
7James Atherton's Score