Female singer-songwriters are like buses (not necessarily in appearance, you understand, and I'm not naming names): you wait ages and then three turn up at once. We seem to be inundated with them at the moment, and one who deserves the spotlight but isn't getting it so much (because she hasn't been seen shooting her mouth off in public or falling out of nightclubs) is Laura Marling. Her debut "Alas, I Cannot Swim" has also been somewhat overlooked because it is not in a pop/r'n'b idiom and she doesn't sing about, well, falling out of nightclubs. She appears to draw inspiration from an earlier generation of folk-rock singers, the likes of Joni Mitchell, Melanie, Jacqui McShee (of Pentangle), Linda Thompson etc.
The subject matter of her songs is a long way removed from the infatuations of (supposedly) hip urbanites trying to buy tequila at 4.00 a.m. too. Her lyrics sound rooted in the land, influenced more by Thomas Hardy or, in modern terms, Graham Swift than by the usual Camden Town obsessions. For someone who is still a teenager she displays a very mature take on difficult subjects such as parental strife, mental illness, death. God only knows what she might have to say by the time she's twenty-five. This is not to say the album is miserable. It is quite introspective, quite melancholy, but not all sad. "You're No God" and "My Manic and I" have an austere humour and light, lilting style. "Cross Your Fingers" has an almost nursery rhyme feel. And like many nursery rhymes, if you think about it, the words are much darker than the tune. The deft, basic acoustic folk backing is augmented here and there by strings and accordion.
So "Alas, I Cannot Swim" is not a party record. You might not play it getting ready to go out on Saturday night. But you might when you get home at whatever time on Sunday. And sitting at home any time, with a malt whisky, not an alcopop.