Agnes Obel

AGNES OBEL / THONY – Sagrata Della Collegiata, Verucchio festival 17th July 2013

Sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on what makes one singer transcendent and another merely tepid.

Ostensibly, Thony and Agnes Obel have a lot in common.

Both are independent women in their early 30s whose songs linger in a territory someway between contemporary folk and adult orientated pop.

They each have voices that could make them X-Factor finalists and neither sing in their native languages.

Yet there’s a yawning gulf between these two artists – Thony is bland and predictable; Agnes Obel is fresh and transporting.

It’s not that the lyrics are any more powerful, both sing in English although the words, at least in a live setting are not very clear. It is more about the stage presence, the melodies and the overall mood.

Thony

Thony (Federica Victoria Caiozzo) was born in Sicily but now lives in Rome. She plays guitar (acoustic and electric) and is backed by three musicians on violin, drum, bass and keyboards who she doesn’t even bother to introduce.

She makes observations that tell you more about herself than the songs. One she described as being written after being challenged to write a song that was just plain stupid. Since this didn’t sound so different from the other tunes she performed, It left the impression that she doesn’t have a strong awareness of what she wants her music to convey or about how it sounds to her audience.

Agnes (pronounced ow-ness) Caroline Thearup Obel is from Copenhagen but now lives in Berlin. She plays piano and is backed by Anne Müller on cello and melodica. Her songs are simple yet hint at something deeper, like gentle lullabies or kids’ songs with a minimalistic classical sensibility and an undertow of sadness; some are instrumentals.

A key difference between these two singers can be gleaned from the choice and presentation of the covers they play.

Agnes Obel onstage at Verucchio

Thony did a version of Malvina Reynolds’ whimsical 1962 folk ballad Little Boxes, a tune which is funny as well as being a sharply satirical critique on how people get to be pressurised into dull conformity.

Thony doesn’t convey any of the song’s wit or wisdom; stomping all over it with a clunky pseudo-jazz arrangement.

In sharp contrast Agnes Obel takes John Cale’s heartfelt A Close Watch and makes it her own.

Like her compositions, there’s a poignancy and beauty which in less capable hands would have become just sickly or sentimental.

This Danish singer is one I can imagine returning to time and time again; the two new songs she played make me impatient to hear her sophomore album, Aventine, scheduled for release at the end of September.

Related links:
Agnes Ovel live on KCRW’s Music Becomes Eclectic 3rd June 2011
Agnes Obel interviewed by  The Quietus

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