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Laura Marling - A Creature I Don’t Know

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Artist: Laura Marling

Album: A Creature I Don’t Know

Label: Ribbon

Review date: Sep. 12, 2011

Laura Marling digs deep into womanhood on her third full-length album, A Creature I Don’t Know, exploring themes of lust, rage, female godhood, mortality and maternity over the course of 10 songs. Never mind that she’s got a pale ingénue’s look, or that she’s just barely cleared the age of 21 — through her imagination at least, she has tapped into the grittiest elements of the second sex’s experience.

It starts with her voice, which skitters quickly over intricate verbal patterns, flowers into unearthly trills and flourishes, and dips, quickly and intuitively, into the earthy tones of spoken word. It’s a volatile voice, shifting shape as it follows irregular patterns of melody and lyric, now jazzily, torchily sophisticated, now keening and folk-toned, now tipped with blues slurs and slides. You can make connections, over the course of three or four songs, with a whole raft of female singers — Joni Mitchell, Joanna Newsom, Nina Nastasia, Billy Holiday — but in a flickering, ephemeral way. You hear a similarity for no more than a second or two before Marling’s emphasis shifts and she sounds like something else entirely.

For A Creature I Don’t Know, Marling is backed by a full rock band — Pete Roe on keyboards, Matt Ingram drumming, Marcus Hamblett on horn and banjo and her long-time friend Ruth de Turberville on cello. The arrangements tend toward the abstract, mostly spare but culminating once or twice in turbulent onslaughts of rock sound. The album’s very finest moment, “The Beast,” for instance, begins in a hush of semi-spoken verse and quiet guitar picking, an invocation almost, as Marling calls out “Sophia, goddess of power.” The song simmers for a couple of minutes, with Marling contemplating the uncontrollable animal urges that have yet to take hold, and then, halfway through, the guitars thicken, the drums turn intense and pummeling, and Marling’s singing turns harsh. “Tonight, he lies with me,” she sing-songs, her voice sliding along the notes in dizzying slipperiness, and then, more emphatically, “Here comes the beast.” The song has a circling, swirling power, a sort of auditory tornado that picks you up and spins you around and puts you somewhere else. It splits the album right in half, and after you’ve heard it, you begin to wait for turmoil and conflict, even during the quiet songs.

“Night after Night,” which follows, is one of those quiet songs, the only cut on A Creature I Don’t Know performed solely by Marling herself, just guitar and voice. And yet, even so, there’s a wildness in the song, an untamed quality, as the singer contemplates the intersection of two all-consuming forces: love and death (“Night after night, day after day, would you watch my body weaken, and my mind slip away?”).

Marling learned folk music from her father, and it’s still a strong element in her work, especially during the all-hands string jam that closes “Sophia” and the lilting, rambling, country-influenced “All My Rage.” Yet by the evidence of A Creature I Don’t Know, she is not, anymore, a folk singer, if indeed she ever was. These are intricate art songs, constructed in knotty flurries of verbal inquiry, filled out with traditional instruments like banjo and guitar, but borrowing as much from jazz, rock and soul as any Celtic tradition.

One of the surprising things about this album is how well Marling embodies older female characters – the Okie matriarch in “Salinas,” the mother of a dead child in “Rest in a Bed.” Barely out of her teen years herself, Marling explores a whole spectrum of female experience with empathy and intelligence. She is now your girlfriend, now your mother, now your sister, now a goddess, now a tormented sexual beast, touching on all these archetypes but refusing to be limited by them.

By Jennifer Kelly

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