In a world dominated by innovation, intriguing young Dane Agnes Obel is doing things in a more traditional way. Showcasing her forthcoming album Philharmonics in the tiny basement room of Clerkenwell pub the Betsey Trotwood, it’s just her with a keyboard and cellist Anne Ostsee accompanying. Just as well, because the tiny space probably wouldn’t allow for anyone else.
After a short instrumental that settles her in, she goes on to demonstrate her songcraft with the album’s haunting title track. Drawing on a combination of folk, pop and classical influences, Obel creates a warm and engaging sound. Her songs suggest contemporary influences in PJ Harvey and Cat Power, backed up with the classical impact of Bach or Debussy.
Throwing in addictive hooks on the likes of Just So she demonstrates an ability to prick up the listener’s ears and break up what could otherwise be a set of amorphous beauty. She claims this is the first time she’s played the cinematic Wallflower in front of other people, and it suddenly feels like a privilege to be at the unveiling of such a fresh talent.
Ostsee briefly swaps her cello for a guitar for Brother Sparrow, a sweet and delicate song that could be a lost Elliott Smith masterpiece. The pianist/cellist combination is an unusual one in these alternative rock circles, but the two of them have a good-humoured and relaxed chemistry that makes the whole evening even more charming. With Obel’s voice soaring sweetly and echoing around the tiny room, Ostsee’s soft, low harmonies complement her perfectly.
Having such limited arrangement options means that there isn’t a great deal of variety between tracks. Depth is added on set-closer On Powdered Ground by Ostsee using pedal loops to add layers to the cello parts. By doing so, an enhanced sense of drama ensures that the gig ends on a high.
Obel’s songs are simple and straightforward. But while she might not be trailblazing, her album is a sharply focused example of haunting, evocative and above all enjoyable songwriting. The songs, the musicianship and Obel herself are faultless to the point of perfectionism. Don’t expect histrionics or derogations from her recorded output; but she absolutely delivers. The only shortcoming of this fantastic introductory gig was that, after just eight pieces, it was over too soon.