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A Creature I Don't Know
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A Creature I Don't Know is produced by Ethan Johns (Kings Of Leon, Ryan Adams, Ray LaMontagne, Emmylou Harris). It follows the success of her sophomore record I Speak Because I Can (also produced by Johns) and her debut Alas I Cannot Swim, both of which were Mercury nominated. In February 2011 she won the Best British Female Solo Artist prize at the Brit Awards, and best solo artist at the NME awards. This edition comes in the original digipack.
Bob Dylan had barely put miles on his 23rd year when he wrote My Back Pages, his gleeful kiss-off to finger-wagging folk turning on his political idealism, its key lines: "But I was so much older then / I'm younger than that now". Laura Marling is only 21, but the Hampshire-born starlet shows no sign of reversing the ageing process with A Creature I Don't Know, her third album which picks up where the meandering, lips-pursed folk of 2010's I Speak Because I Can left off.
On the one hand, that means we're in for some familiar, portentous metaphor-wielding and detours into the sort of windy country ploughed by her once-beau Marcus Mumford and his figurative offspring. On the other, she wears her furrowed brow with a grace and stoic humour well in advance of her nu-folk peers; combining the sort of winking stoicism that was once the preserve of commie-sympathising, flinty-faced menfolk with the supple, jazzy tones of idol Joni Mitchell.
The Muse is a fine and fleet-footed introduction to the one of the album's central themes - muse as victim of the artist's psychic vampirism and/or beastly intentions - unfolding around a jaunty, circling guitar figure and even finding time for a brief banjo solo without losing its considerable cool. I Was Just a Card strays a trifle too close to plodding mum-rock territory but Don't Ask Me Why continues the airy, restful tone even as our protagonist is found "looking for answers in unsavoury places".
Salinas sounds like a bloated monument to the lyrical confusion at its heart ("there are no answers"), all breeze-blown acoustic and lurching, overlaid electric guitar. And The Beast is a rain-lashed monster of a tune, its descending chord sequences sinking, Rosemary's Baby-style, into some infernal bed: "Tonight I choose the beast / Tonight he lies with me".
Night After Night is a classic, folksy pick that allows Marling's voice to revel in its own beauty, while Sophia spends about a minute in search of a tune before hitting on the line, "I'm wounded by dust", and it's like the curtains have been yanked open as her vocal comes flanked by a heavenly choir and softly echoing guitar line. Then it segues into full-on country territory, talk of the judgement day and all, and you'll want to laugh but you won't be able to; such are its author's subtle charms.
Ending with a cathartic, skirt-swishing burst in All My Rage, A Creature... is another fine release from Marling, lyrically dark but skewing in the main towards an increasingly sunny, sophisticated sound. Her worldly-wise tone can still come over a little smug but give her time - she'll grow younger than this yet.
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The album starts by Marling's standards in a musical mood of frivolity with "The Muse" and "I was just a card". The first is a jazzy whirl of banjo's and cello's where Marling warns "Don't you be scared of me/I'm nothing but the beast/And I'll call on you when I need to feast." The second takes as its template the sort of melodic pop balladry of vintage Joni Mitchell circa "Court and Spark". It has enough that is distinctive to set it aside from mere reverence and it is a sparkling start. Things slow perceptibly in the next track "Don't ask me why" which would have happily fitted on "I Speak" and the powerful John Steinbeck inspired "Salinas" where you detect that Marling has become a more polished and sultry singer with the passage of time. As stated above "the Beast" is a real point of departure. A pensive start leads to angry chords and lyrics which act as a counterpoint to the opener "The Muse" where Marling bitterly regrets "Where did our love go, you will never know/ How did you get home, you will never know". This is underpinned by a huge menacing electric backdrop and thunderous conclusion. Its angry denunciation may mark her best song to date and shows that along with Joni Mitchell the New York rock poet Patti Smith may be a new source of inspiration. It is therefore some relief to be followed by the stunningly beautiful and gentile "Night after Night" a sort of Leonard Cohen style love confessional and in its own way an equal highlight. The song "My friends" alternatively has those Jose Gonzalez rolling guitar runs but to these ears is possibly the track on the album that may require most listening effort.
The final three songs however seal the deal. The wistful "Rest in best" builds in a powerful surge with Marling accompanied by angelic backing vocals. The single "Sophia" shows her bold confidence with an almost spoken introduction where she almost taunts a former love (Marcus Mumford?) that "Where I've been lately is no concern of yours/ whose been touching my skin/who have I been letting/shy and tired-eyed am I today". It is brilliant and bold and deserves to be heaped with accolades as it stretches out at 3 minutes to a huge acoustic monster. Finally the album ends with the exuberant "All my rage" which shows that Marling is still great friends with Johnny Flynn on a song that has a joyous Sussex Wit folk quality underpinning.
Marling is often described a fierce talent and on "A Creature I don't know" which is her third album in three years and masterly produced by Ethan Johns she fully confirms that her incredible maturity as a singer songwriter goes well beyond the moment of a "nu folk" flash in the pan. She has emerged as our finest young writer and on the evidence of this new album currently can do no wrong.
at an alarming rate. From 2008's 'Alas I Cannot Swim', through 2010's
'I Speak Because I Can', we arrive at 'A Creature I Don't Know'. Three
albums in three years is hard work by any standard known to man or beast
and Ms Marling has gone from strength to strength in such a short time
that her growth as a writer and performer quite takes one's breath away.
This collection of ten new songs demonstrates a maturity and clarity of
purpose which puts a great many of her contemporaries in the shade.
There are two songs which appear early on in the recording which bare
comparison with 'Court and Spark' and 'The Hissing Of Summer Lawns' era
Joni Mitchell. As my favourite songwriter of all time (bar none!) this
is not an observation I make lightly. 'I Was Just A Card' and 'Don't Ask
Me' are both magnificent compositions. Among the finest I have heard in
the passing of ten years of full moons. Riches beyond measure in fact!
Ms Marling's grasp of complex melodic structure and plaintively personal
lyrical revelation has an immediacy and authenticity which gets inside
your head and your heart and just won't go away. Then there's the voice.
What a wonderful instrument it is! Limber, poignant, focussed and sure
in tone and pitch. A voice in a million! A voice to accompany us on life's
sweet and sour journey. A voice to stand shoulder to shoulder with the best.
The emotional ebb and flow of the aforementioned 'Don't Ask Me' is but one
of the many highlights which display Ms Marling's worth. Breathtaking stuff!
Not far behind, however, the stripped-down simplicity of the introduction
to 'The Beast' makes the very air stand still around it but opens up step
by stealthy step into a powerful invention of darkly disturbing grandeur.
The folksy ballad 'Rest In The Bed', too, stirs something deep in the soil;
a haunting arrangement saturated with otherworldly harmonies which sounds
as though it could have burst into the world fully-formed without Ms Marling
barely having to lift a finger. A fine marriage of imagination and tradition.
It falls to the magnificent 'Sophia', with its delicious near-hoedown twists
and turns and the thrilling high-flung vocals of final track 'All My Rage' to
convince us that Ms Marling's talent burns like a new star in the night sky.
My encounter with 'A Creature I Don't Know' left me feeling joyfully delirious!
However....I really don't appreciate paying £ for a box set that includes a vinyl pressing of such appalling quality. The whole vinyl album has a sound running in the background that sounds like a distant airplane overlaid with insistent crackles and clicks. I'm sorry, just not good enough
The box set itself is an extraordinarily large box - odd in these environmentally conscious times - the download could have been the studio master but it isn't, shame
Still....5 stars for the wonderful music...I just expected the 'package' to do it justice
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