Steve Wilson. On music.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The 2011 Countdown Continues with No. 14, Laura Marling

Continuing today, and culminating with REVERBERATIONS number one album of the year on December 31st (if my math is right)*, we’ll be counting down the top twenty-five records of 2011. I’m referring to this countdown as Twenty-five Faves because I have no pretenses about telling you what’s “best.” Sure, I think my taste is better than yours. But nobody died and made me Lester Bangs. And Lester could be arrogant, but I kind of think he would come down on the favorite side of the fave/best dichotomy. His criticism was nothing if not personal. 
* Okay, maybe it will take a little longer.

I've reviewed the majority of these selections. In the event that I have I'll simply recycle the original reviews, sometimes with a little new commentary. If it's a selection I haven't reviewed previously, I will dash off a new, brief, introductory review just for perspective.

25. Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring for my Halo (Matador)
24. Fountains of Wayne - Sky Full of Holes (Yep Roc)
23. Bass Drum of Death - GB City (Fat Possum)
22. Coathangers - Larceny and Old Lace (Suicide Squeeze)
21. Meg Baird - Seasons on Earth (Drag City)

In 2011, at age 21, Laura Marling released her third album. Take note of that, you slackers. They’re all pretty damn good, too. And her most recent collection A Creature I Don’t Know is exceptionally so.

Now, this isn’t going to be one of my more expansive reviews. It’s Christmas, for … sake. And at 6:27 I’m full of wine. But darn it anyway, I listened to Creature a lot over the last several weeks, since its release in September, and with special scrutiny in the last two days. You know it’s a good sign when such scrutiny is only rewarded with continued, even enhanced pleasure.

Creature, at various points, reminds of the following:
Van Morrison – Astral Weeks
Nick Drake – Five Leaves Left
PJ Harvey – Dry
The Waterboys – Fisherman’s Blues
And a whole bunch of shit by Joni Mitchell.

Well now, it’s that last that shocks and disturbs me. Sorta. I admire Ms. Mitchell’s talent, but I’m not a fan. But damn it anyway, Laura Marling is clearly touched by Joni; and Marling is great. Live and freakin’ learn. Some of the resemblance is in composition, some of it in their shared jazz affinity, but mostly it’s that break in a certain place in their range. Oh well, maybe I gotta go back and cut Mitchell some slack. Never the Eagles. That’s sacred territory, the Dude’s and mine.

Marling is associated with Brit-folk, but outside the prominent use of non-amplified instruments, there’s not a lot to it. Sure, she leans sensibly on the some of the Jansch/Renbourn sensitivity that pervades all of British nu-folk, but Marling has learned as much from Led Zeppelin as Bert, John and company. Think I’m kidding? You can hear it in the “Going to California” flow of “Sophia,” with its lyric that echoes Dylan’s “Fourth Time Around,” and on Marling’s Percy-esque phrasing on “Rest in the Bed,” a song also suffused with Jansch (and Paul Simon) guitar phrasings. The tune also features her flattest, most direct declaration of love, love that withstands challenge (“the sirens come, they always will).

Typically, in Marling’s world, love is more complicated thing. In “Night After Night,” it’s “driven by rage.” The most consistent theme/persona throughout Creature is that of the “beast.” Well, it’s not as heavy as the beast of Christian lore, but it’s a cousin. It makes its first appearance in the very first track. “The Muse” speaks of the singer’s “hunger for abuse.” The muse is love, the muse is artistic inspiration, the muse it everything that eats the soul. And Marling sings about it like some Alison Krauss of darkness as banjo plucks away against cello strains (part of the Drake connection). The beast and the banjo pop up again in “Salinas,” a John Steinbeck inspired song with a bluesy tinge and a lyric for fallen angels and heavenly aspirants.

“The Beast” is in full roar on the song of the same name. Beginning with a dry recitation that builds in intensity, “Beast” is an ominous surrender to the light of darkness that’s more reminiscent of Patti Smith and PJ Harvey than anything to do with “folk.”

Other highlights include “I Was Just a Card,” with an arrangement that recalls Donovan’s proto-psych-folk and Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing,” and “Don’t Ask Me Why,” the most Joni-inclined track here – it’ could have been an outtake from Court and Spark. The song is hymn to justified losers (“it’s not right, but it’s real”). But before we go too nutty with the Joni-cop thing, let’s acknowledge that at twenty-one Marling’s lyrical sensibilities are closer to Sandy Denny than any “rows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air” shit. Marling’s singing borrows a toughness from British women of folk, from Denny to June Tabor, who have spines of steel to offset their gossamer flights, who provide a gravitas that the average Mitchell-inspired songbirds lack.

Creature closes with "All My Rage," Marling making peace with the elements as she closes the door on rage ("all my rage been gone"). You can accept it as face value as a song of grace and transcendence. It works that way. In light of the rage that burns throughout much of Creature it feels like a moment's respite in a long journey.

A Creature I Don’t Know is remarkable for its arrangements and musicianship, for Ethan Johns deft production hand, and mostly for Laura Marling’s songs, singing, and comprehensive, mature vision. Hers is a talent impressive at any age, but extraordinary in one so young.

Apologia: I have not cited any of Marling’s accompanists in this review. I’m in Jersey. I have the music, but not the jacket and liner notes here. Oh, I checked other reviews and articles for references to the excellent players who provide support on Creature. Know what, there wasn’t a damn review that mentioned musicians. I remember when Greil Marcus reviewed the first record I had anything to do with (the first Thumbs album). He mentioned every damned player on the album. And he’s a big rock critic with a big ego. But I think he also understood that bass players have mothers, too. And that big mouth singer/auteurs and lead guitar players wouldn’t be worth two shits without the support they receive from the rhythm section. None of the Creature reviews said one good goddamn about musicians. Granted, it’s not always easy to work in reference to every player, especially in a short review. But hell … give the drummer some – that’s my New Year’s Resolution as a rock writer. For what that’s worth.

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