Agnes Obel, Bush Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Danish singer-songwriter Agnes Obel has the appearance of someone born into the wrong time, an impression not the least dispelled by her music.

Dressed in black at the piano, with her hair pinned back, she has a slightly severe, schoolmarm-ish beauty, and it's easy to imagine her teaching infants in some Scandinavian log cabin in the early years of the last century. Introducing the instrumental "Wallflower" as dating from her high-school years, Obel admits that, yes, she was something of a wallflower back then, and you suspect that the lack of interest from boys wasn't for want of prettiness, but probably because she preferred things like needlework and pressing flowers to discotheque dalliance.

Her music, likewise, has an anachronistic, antique quality, with its echoes of Romantics like Debussy, Ravel and especially, in its enigmatic grace, Erik Satie. The closest modern equivalent would be Ludovico Einaudi: with Anne Müller accompanying her primarily on cello, Obel presents simple, satisfyingly logical piano progressions, chosen for their ability to convey a condensed emotional weight with the greatest delicacy. Beneath the chandeliers and rococo plasterwork of the Bush Hall, the atmosphere is closer to that of a chamber music recital than a pop gig, and indeed, there are some among the audience who presume to "shush" errant murmurers as Obel and Müller prepare for their first piece.

The contemplative, crepuscular moods the duo conjure are perfectly reflective of Obel's lyrics, which have a sombre, autumnal tone and a fascination with birds and beasts and the natural world. It always sounds like dusk rather than dawn in Obel's songs, and the lure of death is never far away, usually by drowning. The duo's high, fluting wordless vocal cooing on an unnamed new song sounds like an attempt to commune with the animal kingdom, a recurrent theme most satisfyingly handled in the charming "Brother Sparrow", for which Müller switches to guitar. Prior to the furtive "Beast" itself, Obel shyly introduces it as being "for all the beasts in the room – and you all know who you are, I'm sure". But there's nothing remotely beastly about either audience or performers, which gives her introduction something of the tone of a fairytale wish fulfilment, a fanciful nursery dream of the wild beyond. And certainly, there's an air of childlike innocence about pieces like "Just So" and the instrumental "Louretta", in which Obel's piano waltzes prettily with Müller's melodica.

The haunting "Riverside" gets the biggest applause of the evening, and deserves it: in a set somewhat overladen with limpid waltzes, it plays most ingeniously with the form, and provides the most fruitful base for the singers' gentle harmonies. Another highlight, set to a cottage-industry throb akin to the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, is Obel's cover of John Cale's "Close Watch", whose numbed refrain "I keep a close watch on this heart of mine" chimes perfectly with the pervasive solitude in Obel's own material. But once the initial spell cast by her music's quiet intensity has worn off, the homogeneity of tone and the preponderance of delicately methodical waltz figures, combined with the total absence of any compelling visual aspect, makes for a dry and somewhat joyless experience.

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