It’s been a great few years for female singer-songwriters. Beside the odd exception like Mark Kozelek or Father John Misty, they’ve pretty much ruled the roost. Courtney Barnett, Natalie Prass and Kali Uchis have already laid claims for the early months of 2015 and with new Florence Welsh and PJ Harvey still upcoming, it doesn’t appear the onslaught will let up any time soon. There’s been an artist fighting the corner for some years now though, since 2011 in-fact, and Hampshire’s Laura Marling is the genre’s undisputable queen.
Marling broke away from Noah and the Whale in 2008 and since then has put out five solo LP’s, despite being only 25. She has lived in New York, won a BRIT, been nominated for three mercury prizes and performed in the Sydney Opera House. Unashamedly feminine but with a bold and dynamic voice and a remarkable ear for melody regardless of the sparse nature of her music – Marling is endlessly endearing, and her new album promises to be the boldest yet.
[quote]Marling is endlessly endearing, and her new album promises to be the boldest yet.[/quote]
Firstly though; it’s not quite the transformation it’s been purported to be. Short Movie has been marketed as a switch to electric akin to Dylan on Blood on the Tracks and, although it couldn’t really get any more sparse than 2013’s Once I Was An Eagle; ‘Warrior’, which introduces the album, is still reminiscent of her older material; just with a few ‘misty-moor’ production effects lingering in the background. Her lyrics are pulled straight from a Grimm fairy-tale, ‘He fearing solitude, began to beg/When he saw I was sure, stuck a knife into my leg’ she coos, seemingly leaving behind a lover thanks to lost connection, only to find no comfort elsewhere. If there’s one thing Laura conveys herself as being it’s lonely, and defiantly so. She’s said before that “the closest I ever feel to people is in shared experience” and such cautious isolation is all over this record. She paints herself as a “horse on the moor” and later “an electric fence/a silent defence to you all.”
[quote]’Who do you think you are?/Just a girl/That can play guitar’ is especially endearing on a song where that’s never sounded further than the truth.[/quote]
‘False Hope’ is the first instance of the bolder direction Marling takes on Short Movie – warning signs come in the form of electric strings instead of acoustic, but there’s no hiding once the drums kick in and the track fills out into a straight rocker; detailing her experience in New York when Hurricane Sandy hit. It’s unmistakably Marling, but there is the nagging fear that if it weren’t for her voice on the track, the song might just blend into the indie rock landscape. First single and title track ‘Short Movie’ alleviates such concerns. In fact in a year already filled with an embarrassment of great singles – this is up there amongst the best. It’s a song which takes you unawares, starting with familiar plucked strings (if backed by some bristling background instrumentation) but slowly rises in pace and tempo, introducing electric guitar, stomping drums and clashing cymbals. By the time sweeping strings join in towards the song’s end and Laura is hollering ‘it’s a short fucking movie man!’ you’re breathless, and you don’t know why. The lyrics on the track are also fantastic, the moment where she’s questioned and replies ‘Who do you think you are?/Just a girl/That can play guitar’ is especially endearing on a song where that’s never sounded further than the truth. Throughout the whole record Marling is grounded in this way, as she always has been, and it’s perhaps responsible for her effortless charm as an artist.
Even when such cinematic scope isn’t on display; the production has been fleshed out on every track. ‘I Feel Your Love’ could have appeared on Once I Was An Eagle easily but here the final verse is enriched with moody, ominous violin chords. ‘Walk Alone’ features sun-baked guitar and a vinyl-crackle. Atypical Marling tracks like the wonderfully sung ‘Easy’ also sound richer and deeper than ever. One of the major selling points of Marling is this vocal talent; somehow relentlessly punky, but very pretty and womanly also. It’s matured through her career so far, and she’s immensely powerful on Short Movie.
On ‘Strange’ she sounds at her most confident, behind tightly struck guitar and bouncing banjos her style drops to spoken word and yet still conveys more dynamism than most of her peers. Often her lyrics are spat like asides to the audience and phrases like ‘But should you fall in love with me/Your love becomes my responsibility’ are her melodic playground, syllables pronounced as if she were stubbing her toe halfway through – the jolts to the system are bizarre and brilliant, and when at the mid-way point she wants to drop into a melody briefly it’s succinct and elegant; aural honey. On album highlight ‘Don’t Let Me Bring You Down’ this vocal maturity is further showcased – ‘I’m a woman now’ she sings, but only a 25 year old one; in the past it feels like she might have delivered the swear words on this record with a churlish giggle; here she’s strident and acidic. ‘Does it look like I’m fucking around?’ she asks. No Laura, it really doesn’t.
Normally it could be said that her vocals are pristine, however sadly that is not quite the case on this record, thanks to one bizarre closing moment on ‘Gurdjeff’s Daughter’ where in the final pre-chorus Laura can be heard breaking through the walls of her range and screeching like someone’s dad doing Billy Joel at a karaoke night. The instrumentation is turned up in the mix to try and mask it, yet it remains very noticeable, and it’s hard to see why it made it through to the final edit considering it’s clear how much better she can be.
[quote]While every song sounds fantastic, once the record is over some of the tracks they title are as easily forgotten.[/quote]
There is a nagging fear too, with the records’ fascination with displacement and confusion, that it has sometimes bled into the music in unintentional ways. It may sound petty, but most of the song titles here are impossibly bland and forgettable; ‘Easy’, ‘Warrior’, ‘How Can I’, ‘Worship Me’… And while every song sounds fantastic, once the record is over some of the tracks they title are as easily forgotten, especially the three songs preceding the title track. Some of the lyrics are equally pock-marked with clichés, and this was not a criticism that could be levied at her earlier work. It’s not to say Short Movie is a bad album; in fact it’s clear that Marling’s keenness to expand her sound is the culprit for most of it, and so unsurprisingly it’s produced some of her best songs, and some of her most unfocussed. Hopefully when she’s more adjusted to her bolder new sound she’ll be able to return her eye to the details too.
Liam Inscoe – Jones
For more from Impact Music, check us out on Twitter