English singer-songwriter Laura Marling was only 18 when she debuted with
the humble folk-pop of Alas I Cannot Swim (Virgin, 2008), a distant
relative of her generation's pop stars and a much closer relative of the
romantic intellectuals of the 1970s.
The breezy folkish rigmaroles Ghosts
and the catchy galloping country-rock of You're No God
downplay the vulnerable persona that emerges from the
gloomy and fragile dirge Old Stone and the
tender daydreaming lullaby of Tap At My Window.
There is a charming middleground, best represented by Cross Your Fingers,
that retraces the warm and wistful path of the Carpenters' Top of the World.
Her singing is mostly plain and uneventful, but she displays a clever sense
of time to conjure the ominous and tragic atmosphere of Night Terror
(possibly the standout)
with pretty much the only help of drums and tambourines, and an even keener
knack for pathos in The Captain And The Hourglass, halfway between
Cher's Bang Bang
and early Leonard Cohen.
The arrangements are generally secondary, except when the violin intones a
waltzing gypsy march in My Manic And I.
The seven-minute Your Only Doll (Dora), on the other hand, sounds like
a stretch of the inspiration.
I Speak Because I Can (Virgin, 2010) sounds more like a personal
manifesto than a work of art. She invests a lot more in
emphasis and drama (Devil's Spoke and Rambling Man)
but at the expense of sincerity.
The Greek/Slavic hoedown of Alpha Shallows sounds like vintage
by Cat Stevens, not
Goodbye England tries in vain to sculpt a memorable melody in memorable
epos, but the melody is dejavu and the epos is only hinted by the strings.
I Speak Because I Can is a failure at a singalong.
The accelerating rhapsody of
Darkness Descends is, at least, a curiously cinematic number.
Way too little happens in way too many songs. She's not Leonard Cohen, who
could harness the world's inner energy with a whisper.
A Creature I Don't Know (Ribbon, 2011) came as an act of
cathartic liberation from the high-tech culture of the early 21st century.
Employing the simplest instrumental and vocal means, Marling was capable of
creating a self-contained universe of complex emotions.
There is the usual
blatant Leonard Cohen soundalike (Night After Night),
and there are a few linear songs (like the soaring blues The Beast),
but Marling's music truly shines when she revolutionizes one genre by using
the conventions of another genre. Hence the shifting structures of
All My Rage (that begins like an English folk dance and ends like a
gospel shout), the jazzy, celtic and baroque hybrid The Muse,
and Sophia, that smoothly bridges Kenny Rogers,
twangy country-rock a` la
and Hawaiian folk music.
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