Agnes Obel and Jenny Hval Will Give You the Chills

Jan 17th, 2017 | By | Category: That's So Last Year

As winter grips the Northern Hemisphere, it would probably be most comforting to grab a nice glass of red wine and relax to music that brings the heat from the southern regions. But instead, I’ve been leaning into the cold by re-listening to two of my favorite albums of 2016. Interestingly, like two of my other favorites of last year (Masha Qrella and Melanie De Biasio), these releases come from female artists — as do a few others I will be writing up shortly.

Agnes Obel’s Citizen of Glass and Jenny Hval’s Blood Bitch would hardly be confused for one another, but they do share some similarities. Both artists are from Scandanavia (Obel from Denmark and Hval from Norway). The music of both often has an icy austerity that seems to grow from that region, conveyed through ethereal vocals and electronics. And both mark major steps forward in the artists’ careers with these latest releases.

With her third album, Citizen of Glass, Agnes Obel delivers on the promise of her 2010 and 2013 albums, Philharmonics and Aventine. The title of her debut might hint at her initial musical training (classical piano), and there are plenty of moments in her latest release that could pass for modern chamber music. But it could also pass for a lot of other genres, which is what makes the album so fascinating. As Obel explains:

The title comes from the German concept of the gläserner bürger, the human or glass citizen. It’s actually a legal term about the level of privacy the individual has in a state, and in health it’s become a term about how much we know about a person’s body or biology or history – if they’re completely made of glass we know everything. There’s an increasing sense in this world that you have to make yourself a bit of glass. To be willing to open up, use yourself as material, and not just if you’re an artist or a musician.

I worked with the title from the very beginning to push myself to do new things. I wanted to push myself conceptually from the starting point, to push the glass theme throughout the songs in different ways – in the lyrics, in the instruments – to do things in a very new way. As an album, it feels bigger to me, a lot bigger.

Obel’s role is also a big one, serving as  producer, mixer, composer, engineer — and handling vocals, keyboards, mellotron, percussion, piano and spinet.  Three cellists and a violinist join her on various tracks, as well as another musician who handles shaker and the unusual trautonium. But for the most part, it’s Obel’s show. In this respect, as well as in some musical ones, she recalls Kate Bush and Joanna Newsom.

While the music has some chilliness to it, that’s only one part of the equation. The cellos and piano bring a warmth  and lushness to the music. Any fan of Brian Eno should find much to like here.

Unlike Newsom, Obel’s voice never rubs the wrong way. It’s soft and inviting, never piercing. Her lyrics are almost beside the point; instead, Obel uses her voice mostly as another instrument. Listen to “Stone” or “Golden Green” to hear some beautiful interplay of (her) voices and try to not be lulled into a quiet mindscape. Like many of the other tracks on the album, these make me remember what I found so enticing about the Cocteau Twins and Mazzy Star many years back. Simply put, this is one of the most beautiful albums of 2016 or any year in memory.

Jenny Hval has also been recording for a while, and again it feels like she has reached higher ground with her latest release. The performance artist/author/singer-songwriter has been releasing music since 2008 (initially as Rockettothesky, more recently under her own name, on both solo and collaborative releases). Blood Bitch is, if one is to believe Hval, a record about vampires. Indeed, the song titles (“Ritual Awakening,” “Female Vampire” and others) suggest some truth to the claim. But there’s another reference to blood, in this case menstruation, as in “Period Piece.”

Unsurprisingly, the music tends to be dark — and compelling, often straddling the link between Krautrock and synth-pop. “Female Vampire” pulses electronically, calling to mind Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” as well as Klaus Schulze. “In the Red” plays with breaths, screams, saxophone and a drone to create a track that doesn’t go anywhere but remains fascinating as it blends lust and fright. “Conceptual Romance” gently lulls the listener along on floating voices and oceanic synths, then breaks down into a Faust-like finale.

If there’s one miscue on the album, it’s “The Plague,” the most obvious indication of the presence of noise artist Lasse Marhaug as co-producer of the album. The track starts with tablas, then goes into a spoken word piece that begins “I don’t know who I am/I’ve never truly loved,” moves into a Stockhausen-style radio tuning exercise and then turns to a screamfest reminiscent of Diamanda Galas on a bad day. It’s not often I want to make a playlist with all but one track of the original, but this is a strong argument for doing that. Omitting the track results in a long, strong album, one well worth hearing.

  • Artist: Jenny Hval
  • Album: Blood Bitch
  • Label: Sacred Bones/Su Tissue
  • Format listened to: LP/digital download
  • Track Listing
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