Culture & Criticism Since 2003
Let’s begin with a long winded digression. I’ve always associated Agnes Obel’s “Philharmonics” album with Phil and Kaja Foglio’s “Girl Genius” online comic. It was a strange association to make: Obel is sombre, almost sepulchral, structured and seemingly uncomplicated in her music. Girl Genius is a mix of the best of Lil Abner and Liberty Meadows, gleefully chaotic, with panels that require minutes of study to take in the fantastic complexity of the artwork.
Of course, I was working my way through some thousand pages of back story as I listened to Philharmonics on my headset, and deriving intense enjoyment from both, so it was only a matter of time before I began to associate the two. Ring the bell, begin to drool. I trained up good.
I wound up making a video that was a series of images from the first two volumes of GG to the tune of the most sprightly song on the album, “Just So.” I was surprised at how well the the two blended, and sent a copy to the Foglios, who responded with polite, if slightly puzzled amusement. I figured that got it out of my system and I then proceeded to enjoy each work on its own merits.
Then I saw two videos Obel had made, from album cuts “On Powdered Ground” and “Riverside,” and my jaw dropped. Her official videos, while unsurprisingly darker than Girl Genius, had the same mad steampunk gaslight fantasy sensibility to them, and matched the music beautifully. It wasn’t just an associative blip on my radar that linked the two; the underlying subtle humour of Obel was the same as that more obvious one of the Foglios. I ripped apart my “Pavlovian Slave” sackcloth T-shirt, and shouted, “I am a MAN! Free at last!”
You take your victories where you can find them.
So what, you ask in slightly exasperated tones, does this have to do with a putative review of Agnes Obel’s new album, “Aventine”?
The answer is that there is a lot more going on in her work than first meets the eye. The music, particularly Obel’s piano work, sounds simple, and you have to listen carefully to realize it is not. And the sensibilities of the music aren’t post-war post-modern post-punk angst. There is a sense of humour and a delighted, mischievous fascination with technological absurdities and how it interacts with humans.
“Aventine” is rich, dark, and powerful. Slightly more openly complex than “Philharmonics”, it retains the same combination of piano played in a cheerful minor key with her deep voice and somber lyrics.
“Chord Left” begins in a way reminiscent of Supertramp’s piano intro to “Fool’s Overture” but where the ‘Tramps veer into a series of “This…is England” patriotic honks Churchill and Big Ben and Fanfare, Obel glides along, building within the melody, leading to a single note hanging in the air like a soap bubble. This leads to her first vocal cut, “Fuel to Fire” and the mood is set.
All the tracks are worth attention, but the most striking are “The Curse”, (“Under the snow the grass did grow, aiming at the stars”) and “Avenida” which captures the same sense of resurrection from burial to the skies:
“Will you go ahead to the Aventine
In the holly red in the night
Dirt under my shoe from the old at heart
Right under you, grinning in the dark”
Obel is already huge in Europe, and this may just be the breakthrough album for the American market. But even if it isn’t, it is another remarkable performance, and she has established herself as a major musician.
Zepp Jamieson was born in Ottawa, Ontario, and spent his formative years living in various parts of Canada, the UK, South Africa and Australia before finally moving to the United States, where he has lived for over 40 years. Aside from writing, his interests include hiking, raising dogs and cats, and making computers jump through hoops. His wife of 25 years edits his copy, and bravely attempts to make him sound coherent. Reach him through The Electric Review.