Thursday, October 12, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1060: Laura Marling

I am feeling a little tired this week and looking forward to the weekend.

Disc 1060 is…I Speak Because I Can
Artist: Laura Marling

Year of Release: 2010

What’s up with the Cover? It’s a bit on the grey side, although it does evoke Greek statuary a bit, and I like Greek statuary. Nevertheless, I declare this cover…meh.

How I Came To Know It: I’ve known Laura Marling since I saw her perform on the Jools Holland show about seven or eight years ago. This particular album eluded me until earlier this year, when I was reminded of its existence via the oft-referenced (by me) “Top 100 Indie Folk Albums” list from Paste Magazine. It came in at #36 on that list, and while I wouldn’t have ranked it so high seeing it there made me think “Hey, that’s a Laura Marling album I don’t have – I should check it out.” So I did.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Laura Marling albums and I like them all to varying degrees. I put this one in third, a hair behind “A Creature I Don’t Know”.

Ratings: 3 stars

I’ll admit when the dice gods offered up “I Speak Because I Can” out of my new music section, it wasn’t what I was hoping for. I had to remind myself that I bought it for a reason and to give it a chance.

The album is only 36 minutes long, and over the past couple of days I’ve heard it almost four times through so I had plenty of time to decide just how I felt. At first I was pleasantly surprised, by listens two and three I was genuinely impressed and by listen four I was thinking “solid record, but I’m ready to hear something else.”

Laura Marling is an English contemporary folk singer with vocals that tend to be a bit flat, but are more than compensated for by lyrics that are sharp. See what I did there?

Anyway, Marling’s tone has a husky hint in the low register and surprisingly sweet at the top end, but it isn’t her vocal prowess that keeps you listening, it’s her songwriting.

Musically these songs are restless to the point of sometimes being agitated, but never without a point. This is a record about uncertainty, both internal and external, and Marling’s ability to explore that shifting emotional ground is what makes her so compelling. She derives an awkward strength from the journey that she’s not afraid to express, such as these lines from “Rambling Man”:

“It’s funny that the first chords you come to
Are the minor notes that come to serenade you
And it’s hard to accept yourself
As someone you don’t desire.”

As you would expect from lyrics like that, Marling is also a thoughtful melody writer and while these songs aren’t exactly pop hooks, they have an interesting progression and tend to blossom into something subtly beautiful before they’re done. Marling also knows how to end the musical concept without resorting to flourishes and fade outs. Lesser indie folk singers, take note: it can be done.

I was also impressed by Marling’s guitar work. She plays with a style that fluctuates between classical and busker as the song and moment demands. It is easy to underestimate guitar in a folk song, but it would be a mistake here, where it is every bit as much of a star as the song construction and lyrics.

Production-wise, there are times that the sound is a bit too round and atmospheric where it called for a more stark treatment, but overall Marling is restrained in the arrangements, knowing when to bring in a little banjo or fiddle without making it all fussy in the process.

The record demands your attention for maximum enjoyment. All music suffers from being relegated to “background music” but “I Speak Because I Can” would suffer more than most. That’s a shame, because when I’m not listening for the purposes of writing a review, I’m often doing some second activity (playing a game, reading a book) and I expect that this record won’t get put on as much as it deserves.

Finally, I experienced some annoyance over the album’s presentation. The only song listing for the CD case is that hodgepodge on the cover photo above. Fine for when you are reading it off your digital device, but annoying if you are listening on your home stereo and having to constantly futz and count across to be sure of the song title. Also, the lyrics inside are presented in big blocks of hard to read print with no line breaks. If you’re going to publish the lyrics, at least make it easy for me to follow along.

At her best, Marling reminds me of Leonard Cohen or Angel Olsen, which is pretty good company to be keeping. While this album didn’t live up to the hype of the Paste article, I still am glad I gave it a chance.

Best tracks: Rambling Man, Blackberry Stone, Goodbye England, Hope in the Air, I Speak Because I Can

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