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Amongst the soul inspired song-writings of Amy Winehouse, Adele and Duffy, it is refreshing to hear a young female singer who eschews soulful huskiness and harks back to folk. In the week that saw musical royals John Martyn and Rachel Unthank & the Winterset honoured at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, 18-year-old Laura Marling is leading the way for a new folk generation. With performances at Glastonbury and Later With Jools... behind her, Marling has already made a considerable dent on the music scene.
Alas I Cannot Swim is an album that embraces the elegiac sensibilities of traditional folk and forward thinking contemporary folk music. Many have likened Marling to Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and Sandy Denny, but Marling's sound is every bit her own. On opening track Ghosts she sounds assured, her voice arresting and powerful. "Lover please do not fall to your knees, it's not like I believe in everlasting love", Marling sings, with a conviction beyond her years.
The Reading-based singer's vocals are stunning on Old Stone - a shiveringly affecting, dignified and rousing track. Tap At My Window based on a Philip Larkin poem is equally impressive. Across the album, carefully constructed instrumental lines counter her vocal, always complementing, never suffocating.
Marling switches from playfulness to deep-set sensibility with great deftness. The bright country tempo of You're No God signals a full-blown folky knees-up while references to world folk music add edge and depth; Crawled Out Of The Sea with its marching accordion and snare riff recalls another folk revivalist, Beirut. But despite the cheery optimism, there is an underside of darkness; Night Terror, a solemn march, grows via doleful drums into a stirring call-to-arms.
Faithfully rooted in a folk heritage and at times country-tinged, Alas..., like the finest folk music, pits outward-looking paeans alongside introspective song. Marling may be young, but she has substance. An enthralling listen. --Gemma Padley
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