Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Laura Marling "A Creature I Don't Know" (4.5*)

Taking a peek around the intertubes the way you do when you're listening to something impressive by someone you don't know a whole lot about I noticed there seems to be a degree of surprise about the quality of a third album coming from a twenty-one year old. It's not as if there's a law against relatively young singer-songwriters turning out quality product, so I suspect there's a bit of reverse ageism kicking in there.

Young writers aren't, presumably, supposed to be this good, though I fail to see why that should be the case. Richard Thompson, I should remind the reader, wrote Meet on the Ledge at the ripe old age of seventeen, and over the years there have been plenty of classy writers and performers who’ve risen to prominence at a relatively young age.

Since I haven’t heard Alas, I Cannot Swim or I Speak Because I Can I can’t comment on development, but given Marling’s background (Mum’s a music teacher, Dad used to run a recording studio, she’s the youngest of three sisters and you’d assume that having learnt guitar at an early age) she’d be coming from a music-rich environment. Add the fact that she is an avid reader and you’ve got a background likely to produce something of substance provided there’s a bit of creative imagination lurking there as well.

Over the last few years of my teaching career the whole language approach to teaching literacy stressed the importance of providing a text-rich environment so that children are exposed to a large quantity of quality text and become literate almost by osmosis rather than through explicit instruction in the rules and conventions of literature. I had my doubts about this concept as a general principle but accepted in the right conditions it could deliver impressive results that you wouldn’t be able to achieve through other approaches.

Based on her family background and a few listens to A Creature I Don’t Know I suspect we’re looking at the musical equivalent of deep childhood immersion in quality content followed by a relocation to London at the ripe old age of 16 where immediate absorption into the acoustic, tradition-tinged new folk scene (Mumford & Sons and Noah & the Whale created a situation where there was plenty to explore for a kid who’d grown up in an environment where exploration and synthesis was probably encouraged.

For someone who never “got” Joni Mitchell, the fact that I got into the album more or less from the start of The Muse might come as a surprise, but there’s a certain arch charm, a wry sense of detachment to some of this stuff that doesn’t fit with recollections of Ms Mitchell stuff that had her filed under Nothing of interest here forty years ago. On the basis of A Creature I Don’t Know it might be time to re-dip the toe in the Mitchell oeuvre...

But back to The Muse, which shuffles along as Marling introduces The Beast, a recurring character representing one side to her personality, in an unsettling rambling narrative driven onwards by wire brush drums and a plunky banjo over a cello and double bass driven hook that delivers a tumbling, swirling ragtime shuffle..

She follows it with I Was Just a Card, three and a half minutes of stop-start interaction between horns, strings and delicate guitar, Don't Ask Me Why, about looking for answers in unsavoury places and Salinas, a portrait of her mother set in John Steinbeck’s hometown that builds up with ripples of melody and sharp-tongued as the beasts roar in the background and the narrator speculates whether she’ll ever see heaven again.

Starting with just Marling and her guitar, the album’s centrepiece, The Beast, clocking in at just under six minutes, delivers a devastating analysis of the ways love transforms itself into confusion, deception, anger and confusion and is followed by Night After Night which is an excursion into Leonard Cohen Famous Blue Raincoat territory, acoustic guitar and an eerily calm and measured voice delivering lyrics about love gone sour and sanctuaries that turn out to be minefields.

With the album’s themes firmly set in place, My Friends and Rest in the Bed continue the exploration before the album’s other tour de force, Sophia starts as a not-quite lullaby with  the narrator despatching a former lover (where I have been lately is no concern of yours), invokes the ancient goddess of wisdom, and builds slowly into anthemic proportions with a churning chorus.

That rousing chorus flows into sea shanty territory for the album proper’s closer All My Rage, which wraps proceedings up tidily with a lilting Celtic melody and a rousing chorus, but as you’d expect in the days of bonus tracks tacked on to the end, there’s an excursion into the Tuscan hills on Flicker and Fail, which works well enough as an extra but doesn’t really add anything much to the main proceedings.

So from here the question is where next? There’s enough on offer here to justify going back to investigate those earlier titles, though that’s not necessarily a priority at the moment given other avenues that also need investigating.

The appearance of a follow-up, on the other hand, will probably prompt an immediate purchase.

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