Album of the Month – A Creature I Don’t Know from Laura Marling

For a change, we're focusing on one album this month. It feels a little odd for someone of my age to have a 21 year old woman as a musical hero, but I am a huge fan of Laura Marling. Her last album was the Spend Matters album of 2009 2010. So it's fair to say that  A Creature I Don't Know was my most anticipated album of the year.  Hence the length of this review...

Just a few seconds into the first track, Muse, and I'm worried. I can hear something different in her voice. And the sense of dread hits me. I've seen it happen to so many great artists. It's a temptation, of course. It feels daring, exciting. But it's implications for the artistic development, and for the enjoyment of fans can be terrible.

It happened to Elvis Costello. Paul Weller dabbled but got out in time. Van Morrison was never the same. Yes, you can get sick of the boring life of 4:4 and recognisable tunes but it's tragic all the same - and now, Laura Marling is in danger of succumbing. At he horribly early age of 21, she is messing with... JAZZ!

Jazz - music aimed at people who don't really 'get' music, but feel they have to like something.

Jazz - great fun to play (and I have personal experience of this) but tedious for the audience.

Jazz - the last refuge of the pretentious, the Gaulois smoking, Guinness drinking, hat wearing poser.

That first track is almost unlistenable - I'm sorry, but it has to be said. Affected vocals, irritating backing, and that unmistakable jazz feel (bit of jazz piano, anyone?)

Now, things do improve dramatically - it's a rare album these days that doesn't tail off, but this gets better and better. Joking aside, the jazz thing is only occasionally intrusive, and there are more purely acoustic tracks here then on the last album.  Signs of real development are also evident. The Beast is a superb dabble with Zeppelin III type dramatic mid-tempo folk-metal, starting slow and soft and ending up with the heaviest noise Marling has made to date.  And Sophia * is a brilliant pop /  country / folk rock stomper, again starting slow and soft and building, and as magnificent a song as she's written to date.

The other issue is the lyrics. Marling does need to keep the pretentiousness threshold in view - she threatens it more than once here. But I still believe that she will produce an all-time classic album (or two, or three) before too long.  And actually, if you put the highlights from this and I Speak Because I Can together, you'd probably have that classic. I think an iTunes compilation is called for here.

But please Laura, for your sake, for our sake, for the sake of your unborn children - give up the jazz NOW. This is tough love - someone has to tell you.  Release your inner Zeppelin and make a rock / metal album. Team up with the Unthanks and give us the definitive, transformational, dramatic, female nu-folk album. Do a Mumfords type country / pop thing and make millions. But if I see a song with a 13:4 time signature on the next album, you're going to lose me...

A score of 8/10 - but it could have been more...

(* There's a sweet / sad comment on this video on YouTube - "I have kept myself from introducing Laura Marling to my boyfriend because I'm afraid he'll end up hating me for not being her". Sounds like a short story in 23 words....)

Voices (7)

  1. David Atkinson:

    Steve,

    I understand and accept your push-back re my reference to ‘bargain bin material’. It’s not really the essence of my argument though.

    ‘Life’s comment (above) is much closer to that…. ‘Gillian Welch’s new album, which I think has more in common than being contempory but possesses a different grade of weight and purchase.’ The artist doesn’t have to speak for me (I’m neither a young woman, nor 23 years old – many know this :-)) but she/he has to speak with an authentic voice, with the ‘weight’ (‘Life’ again) being more important that the technical merits of the music. Gillian Welch is a great example of where the former overwhelms the latter and it’s THAT what makes her and her music so resonant.

    As it happens, I haven’t heard the latest Welch album, although I own all the others. Listen to ‘Hell Among The Yearlings’ or ‘Time (The Revelator)’ albums; background music they are not.

  2. Steve:

    Re: David Atkinson: “A bit like the Mumfords; enjoyable with great melodies and energy, but you just know it’s bargain bin material in a couple of years time.”

    I think that’s a little unfair… bargain bins are full of CDs where supply has exceeded demand. This is usually either successful albums or mis-fired X-Factor people (that was meant to be successful). Expect to see Adele’s albums for £2 before long not because of the music (which I happen to like) but because everybody who wants a copy has one.

    It’s almost like you are saying that good music has to be unpopular / unsuccessful. I’ll focus on the “enjoyable with great melodies and energy” part of the music for now and let time take care of bargain bin contents and classic album lists.

  3. Life:

    I’m still waiting for Laura Marling, but I am waiting! I find myself making a comparison with Gillian Welch’s new album, which I think has more in common than being contempory but possesses a different grade of weight and purchase. Marling has a beautiful voice and can “throw the chords” but I, again personally, feel she’s idling and the songs lack some sort of authenticity – like Mitchell, Welch or Cohen even who Marling evokes at times. Is this surprising or even disappointing given her age – she literally doesn’t have the vocabulary for some of the material she’s aiming at. While I completely disagree with your personal take on jazz (modern jazz?), I do think that just “going through the genre moves” does look most ridiculous in jazz, where the technical virtuousity is that much more elaborate (not more worthy note), whereas in folk and blues it can look more like tradition.

  4. David Atkinson:

    ‘Affected vocals, irritating backing….’ Same old, same old….

    For me, there’s something about Laura Marling that reeks of ‘trying too hard’. It’s also just like a lot of others, like a modern version of Americana, the type that’s polished rather than earthy and authentic. A bit like the Mumfords; enjoyable with great melodies and energy, but you just know it’s bargain bin material in a couple of years time. Close, but no cigar.

    I feel sorry for artists like Laura Marling. She’s undoubtedly very talented but she’s competing not just with others around her, but with history too. There are so many wonderful singer-songwriters from the past 40 years, with their music still out there, and Laura’s just not distinctive ENOUGH to be a long-term contender.

    Maybe she does need to go down the jazzy route. It worked for Joni Mitchell, who produced her most compelling work when with Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny. And no-one could accuse Joni Mitchell of not having a distinctive voice (or sound). She’s so unique and utterly recognisable; nobody has sounded like her, before or since. A genuine artist, even if it ain’t easy to practice your line-dancing to.

  5. Jürgen Kleindienst:

    Peter,
    thank you so much for your words on the emptiness of jazz and the extraordinary Laura Marling whose music gets me like it gets you. I wrote a review about her new album for a German newspaper and – this is why I have to write you here – I could also feel the atmosphere of Zeppelin III in that sound. This is it! This music is like a wine keeping the essence of folk and rock. What I could also hear (or was awakened in me) is Buffy Sainte-Marie. And: jazz is a dead end street…
    All the best for you, nice to read you.
    Jürgen

  6. Joe:

    Either you’re joking, or you should consider moving to Nashville and devoting your efforts to criticisms of the Grand Ol’ Oprey, or something equally earthy.

    1. Peter Smith:

      Joe
      Not sure quite what you mean – if you’re a jazz fan, then I was exaggerating somewhat for effect, but I do think it’s a lot more fun to play than to listen to! And it has been a dead end for a lot of artists from other genres…
      If you’re a Marling fan, then I still think it’s one of the best albums of the year, just not quite up to my expectations. If you’re not a Marling fan, then there is I’m afraid no hope for our musical relationship….!
      I spent a happy evening at the Grand Old Opry in 2003 when I was in Nashville for the NIGP conference, although we horrifed the staff by leaving before the headliner – Brad Paisley – who we’d never heard of at the time. 3 hours of country was enough. But the backing musicians were amazing – so tight, accompanying almost every one of the 20 or so artists with virtually no rehearsal.
      Thanks for the comment anyway!
      PS Ray Lamontagne and Brandi Carlile playing there next week – could be a great gig…
      http://www.ticketmaster.com/event/1B0046C9C5166D52?artistid=935501&majorcatid=10001&minorcatid=1

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