The freaky-folkies, those of the Devendra Banhart, Vetiver and Joanna Newsom ilk, have done a great deal for the expansion of folk as a genre outside of its traditionally older-skewing fan base. They have expanded upon traditional guitar/fiddle arrangements and created a genre within a genre, capable of keeping the idea of folk fresh instead of perpetually old and out-of-touch. But what innovators give, they also somewhat take away. While the Pitchfork-endorsed freaks are plowing new land, the stigma of folk’s staid codgery manifests itself in the album’s of acts such as Laura Marling. Marling, 21 and already touring her third LP, A Creature I Don’t Know, has grown to appreciate the updates of folk that the festival circuit can bring, as well as incorporating certain freaky elements to the mix. A Creature I Don’t Know feels fresh in this way, stripping away what tired genre-isms Marling may have traded on in the past.
Although there is a certain Newsom-ness to Marling, especially in the way her newfound slippery musicianship interplays with her perpetually knotty wordplay. Opener “The Muse” recalls the manic pixie dream girl of folkdom with its stop-start string work. Marling is not as brave as Newsom, or as endlessly and fruitfully complex, but the seeds are there for her to develop into a satisfying touring partner. An interesting part of Marling’s young age has been watching her develop her sound and outpace those older than her. “All My Rage,” the cataclysmic closer, outstrips generic Mumford & Sons build-up of its triteness, making something finally emotionally affecting (something M&S never do). “Salinas” resembles a beefed-up cut from Gilian Welch’s excellent new LP The Harrow and the Harvest, completely with a not-altogether-tried choir in the background. Her best song yet, “The Beast” is a vicious PJ Harvey-covering-Neil Young rager, with Marling deep-breathing and confidently saying, “Tonight he lies with me/ here comes The Beast.” If there has been a consistently excellent element to a Marling LP, it’s her ability to twist around her verses with uncanny slips of the tongue and beautiful melodies. Old-time conventions and mechanics percolate Marling’s voice; she has a richness modeled on Judy Garland and a deeper timbre, a folky shake that mentions Joan Baez and Bonnie Raitt.
Marling slips up in between her beautiful and welcome developments, but the trips are more mistakes of retreading than ill-advised experiments. Every experiment Marling delves into works to great effect; it’s just a shame there aren’t more of them. “Sophia,” for example, builds off her traditional guitar troubadour persona into something resembling a beautiful folk-pop song. Stuff such as “Rest in the Bed” or “My Friends” are memories of Marling’s former work, and as good as that was, her inventiveness betrays her ability to go back on former sounds.
But again, her missteps are ones of repetition, which is forgivable, especially when considering the live context in which these songs could be played. Marling is crafting a fascinating personality, both live and on record, despite her age and her nature as a pure, nonretro, nonhip folkie. A Creature I Don’t Know is another step in the right direction, one that earns her another point on the road to festival stardom.
Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know Tracklist:
- “The Muse”
- “I Was Just a Card”
- “Don’t Ask Me Why”
- “The Beast”
- “Night After Night”
- “My Friends”
- “Rest in the Bed”
- “All My Rage”