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Saturday, April 8, 2017

Agnes Obel: Aventine


1) Chord Left; 2) Fuel To Fire; 3) Dorian; 4) Aventine; 5) Run Cried The Crawling; 6) Tokka; 7) The Curse; 8) Pass Them By; 9) Words Are Dead; 10) Fivefold; 11) Smoke & Mirrors.

Unfortunately, Obel's second album firmly places her in the never-ending list of artists who may have said everything they had to say with their first shot, and then simply go on to say it again and again and again, for all those who love it when they are being told the same thing over and over as long as the speaker actually opens his/her mouth and produces fresh sound waves, instead of relying on this new-fangled «preserve it for posterity» recording technique. In other words, Aventine follows the same formula as Philharmonics, but with predictably diminished results.

Or, perhaps, not really «predictably»? Perhaps there are problems here that could have been avoided? For me, these problems start with the very first track. On Philharmonics, the brief impressionistic piano piece ʽFalling, Catchingʼ sounded wonderful — a perfectly captured piano tone and an engaging, subtle dynamics as the little piano riff smoothly wound its way upwards. In contrast, the opening piano instrumental on Aventine (ʽChord Leftʼ) seems to make more use of the sustain pedal, is slower, more emphatically sadder, and, on the whole, belongs far more effi­ciently on the soundtrack of some commercial melodrama than on an album vying for «piece of art» status (I wanted to write «high art», but let's keep this populist and democratic).

It is still okay, but it is quite reflective of the overall quality of the album, with generally less memorable and less musically interesting songwriting. Whether or not you loved ʽRiversideʼ, its waltzy structure and folksy vocal melody were at least catchy and well adapted to each other. On Aventine, the first song is ʽFuel To Fireʼ, a pure mood piece set to a two-chord piano riff and not varying at all for five minutes — still retaining the overall tastefulness, but absolutely amorphous as a composition that you'd want to possibly cherish and preserve in your head. And when it is immediately followed by ʽDorianʼ, another five-minute song that is essentially more of the same (gracefully mumbled, hookless singing set to a piano melody that even certain minimalist com­posers would probably have rejected)... you know something's gotta be wrong about that.

And these songs were the singles culled from this album — although the first one was ʽThe Curseʼ, a slightly better waltz piece (for some reason, the waltz tempo always seems to work better for Agnes) played by a bass / cello / piano trio and sung with some haunting vocal modula­tions; with its allegorical lyrics about a pseudo-mythical situation, it is the closest thing to a «chamber epic» on Aventine. Still, as far as songs salvageable for compilations go, I would not dwell too much on ʽThe Curseʼ — rather sticking up for the title track (another waltz, this time harp-based, with a very pretty cello / harp texture) and, perhaps, ʽRun Cried The Crawlingʼ (with a very Andrew Bird-like violin, probably played by Canadian Mika Posen, generally credited for violin on the album). And that's about it — everything else is pleasant at best, mind-numbing and somnambulant at worst.

What is really incredible about this is that the disappointment in no way rubs off on the positive impression I had of Philharmonics — I keep playing bits and snippets of songs from both albums back to back and I can't help but be somewhat bewildered at how her piano melodies that used to incorporate emotionally brilliant flourishes have so seriously melted into flat muzak, and at how her vocals, that used to find such a good balance between husky-dusky and subtle sharp­ness, are now almost always just husky-dusky (with the exception of a few relative highlights). Again, perhaps some people will think that naming your album after one of the seven hills of Rome and dedicating one of the songs to an Oscar Wilde character should suffice to redeem every other sin — I respectfully disagree. I do not give the album a thumbs down, because, all criticism aside, I still like the overall sound of it, which does not bother or offend me one bit; but where Philharmonics was a «subtly active» record, whose emotional charge gradually disclosed itself upon repeated listens, Aventine is a soporifically passive one. Any final recommendations? Well... to quote yet another ambitious singer-songwriter of our times who's had her ups and downs, "You better work bitch!"


  1. I have to admit I cracked up at that punchline.

  2. I'm sensing a pattern: Quiet, awkward, minimalist 21st century singer songwriter makes understated splash with baroquish, waltz-dominated debut album, which earns your thumbs up, then they get boring-er and waltz-ier and they're dead to you. Your trend is to favor the early works of the artist, especially in the singer-songwriter category (the opposite is your tendency for metal groups). I don't have any issue with that, it's just something I've noticed.

  3. Overall such a pattern makes sense - a singer/songwriter does not need to perfect his/her musicianship and usually sounds more authentic before they've worked on the formula too much. Meanwhile a metal band (and as a matter of fact any band) first needs to reach some chemistry between its members and obviously in case of metal it matters how well you play while for songwriters even of Leonard Cohen calibre you don't really care if their playing (and even singing) is just sub-par.
    Also it could be that for songwriters George starts with the expectation "maybe on day this artist can reach the heights of No Jacket Required" but quickly gets disillusioned because no one can match the great Phil.

    1. People like Cass McCombs, Austra, Agnes Obel are at least serious artists, while most of the metal bands George reviews are just a joke, and it is kinda on the same level as reviewing pub bands. If you are going to listen to such music, you might as well pick an album where they are well practiced and professional.

    2. True that. Metal bands especially from the 90s onward are starting in a niche genre, which has innumerable but indistinct subgenres. Alice in Chains is one of the few exceptions. Add to that the crappy productions values.