Album Review With Laura Marling, Hurray For The Riff Raff, Amber Run and The Shins

Last month was a brilliant one for new albums – sorry we’re a little late with this!

Laura Marling -  Sempa Femina

Marling is a genius and the greatest British female singer-songwriter of all time – discuss. There is a strong argument for that (who else are you going to support? Florence? PJ Harvey? Sandy Denny?) and at the age of just 27, this is her sixth excellent studio album. This is as good as any of her previous works, with strong songs that really are hard to categorise – much of it is not really “folk” in any traditional sense. It is apparently a “concept album about femininity and female relationships” but you wouldn’t really know it (the songs are about women but written from a male perspective, by a woman ... confusing)!

But she sounds more relaxed than on her last album and she has generally stopped singing in a fake American accent which was a little annoying. Indeed, her voice and guitar skills have really improved over the years – her finger-picking is very impressive now and she can sound like Karen Carpenter at times (that’s a compliment) as well as much more angry and raw when appropriate. The arrangements here are great – subtle but very effective use of strings for instance on several tracks. It’s sophisticated yet enjoyable music and another real achievement for Ms. Marling.

I still think that one day she will produce THE album that will seal her place as an all-time great, but she’s not far off, and when on Always This Way she sings (beautifully) “25 years, nothing to show for it, nothing of any weight”, you really hope she doesn’t honestly believe that of herself, because she has achieved more and generated pleasure for more people than 99.99% of humanity already. 9/10

(This is a lovely live version of one of the album’s best tracks – Dylan meets Lou Reed maybe …)


Hurray For The Riff Raff – The Navigator

Now we would have put money on Marling’s album being our favourite for March. But then we heard this and wow, sorry Laura … Despite our love for Ms Marling, this maybe pips it as best of the month and more. HFTRR is really Alynda Segarra, a 30-year old born in the Bronx of Puerto Rican origins, who left home at 17 and drifted through the American south, writing and singing. Her previous two albums were very much in an Appalachian folk/country “Amerciana” style and very good they were too. But here she moves onwards and upwards, reflecting her Latino heritage in much more varied styles and through what is in effect a concept album – we won’t try and describe the story but it is political, yet doesn’t get in the way of the music which is just brilliant.

The first track is a gospel doo-wop song, then we have a Mink Deville homage, then a new wave rocker, then a more folk influenced track… later on we get Cuban drums, even some recorded poetry, but her vision, great voice (which can do several very different styles) and personality hold it together. It’s just great, and if this isn’t my album of the year, then something really amazing is going to come along in the next 9 months … So here is a whole 37 minutes of her. If you don’t have long, go to 4:30 and “Nothing’s Going to Change That Girl” which is gorgeous then jump to 34 minutes for the end of “Pa’lante” for some real passion.  9.5/10


The Shins -  Heartworms

Another good album with literate and somewhat retro (Beatles, Beach Boys) influenced songs from US indie favourites, the band in reality being pretty much James Mercer and some friends.  Just their 5th album in 16 years, I don’t think it is quite as good as 2007’s Wincing The Night Away, which I loved in terms of the strength and memorableness (?) of the songs, but this is very enjoyable nonetheless. The arrangements are often complex, but the songs sound light and effortless – it is an album easy to enjoy as background on a long car journey, but repays closer listening too. The slower tracks are my favourites actually – I don’t know if I love the country-influenced Mildenhall so much because it is rather lovely or because my sister got her first teaching job in that small town!  Not life changing but another very good album. 7.5/10

Amber Run – For A Moment I was Lost

I don’t quite understand why I haven’t come across these guys before now. I only caught up with this because they are one of the headliners for the amazing Dot to Dot Festival weekend, where a hundred plus acts play 20 venues on consecutive days in each of Manchester, Bristol and Nottingham on May 26th to 28th. We did Manchester last year and it was just great – and all for about £15 for an early booking ticket – the biggest bargain in the live music world! (Tickets now £22 I see, still worth it for music from 2pm – 2am).

Anyway.. Amber Run are in that broad adult, credible, “serious” rock genre populated by Coldplay, Keane, Muse (sometimes), Radiohead in their more mainstream moments, and Nothing but Thieves and Dry the River amongst more recent entrants. And they stand up to those comparisons, with big and catchy tunes and a very strong vocalist in Joe Keogh. But there are also signs of something a little more leftfield too -  the vocoder harmonies of Haze could almost be Kanye West.

Mr. Spriggs, you will like this, I suspect… 8/10

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