Christmas songs are as big a part of the season as crowded shopping malls and spiked eggnog, but there are only so many times you can hear “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls” without wanting to wretch just a little. Here are some suggestions for compiling a Yuletide playlist that perhaps isn’t quite so musty. Much of the music can be purchased or ordered locally at Guestroom Records, Size Records and the like.
Labeling Laura Marling and her British ilk with the awful tag of nu-folk
makes about as much sense as nu-metal does, in general. Which is to
say, very little.
So much of the 21-year-old’s third LP, “A Creature I Don't Know,” comes in styles more nuanced and technically difficult to perform than pure, simple folk, while it simultaneously avoids lazily dipping into other stylistic offshoots for guidance or song structure. Stories are told here in country, British folk, American folk and plenty of other traditional veins. It’s a remarkable record, in that it’s easily accessible and still full of seemingly divine wisdom.
And for being so young, Miss Marling’s sure done a lot of growing up since 2007’s Mercury Music Prize nominee “Alas, I Cannot Swim,” when, then at 18 and 19 years old, she sang of the stuff typical of those her age, but with considerably more authority in her matured, husky voice.
Now, after a step in the right direction that was last year’s wonderful “I Speak Because I Can,” her songwriting’s caught up with that rich, homespun voice of hers. She’s moved on from “I Speak”’s themes of growing into womanhood and matured into a female folk storyteller, employing recurring characters (the ancient goddess of wisdom Sophia, who titles the second-to-last song on the record and appears on “The Beast”) and poetic lyricism (she mentions “the bed of my bones” on the poignant, scary “Rest in the Bed”) to examine womanly social roles, love and devotion, and fate.
“Salinas” and “The Beast” stack up back-to-back as the album’s massive centerpiece. The former’s tone and familial nostalgia matches the prose of John Steinbeck who set many of his great novels in the California town. On “The Beast,” A choppier acoustic guitar riff signals doom and dread, along with rare, discordant electric guitar chords as Marling sings “tonight I choose the beast, tonight he lies with me … here comes the beast.” “You should be grateful there’s no blood on my hands,” she soon follows it with. Yikes.
And for how terrifying Marling can be on such songs, her voice can also express ladylike sweetness on “I Was Just a Card”; that is, until you realize that she’s singing about knowing your deepest secrets. “Rest in the Bed” is an incredible story, told both with some of her best lyrics and a slew of acoustic instruments, what sounds like an oboe, and a creepy, whispering female chorus. Her range, as a singer and with differing styles, is absolutely stunning.
This is the album Marling was born to record. Let’s all hope she’s got a few more in her, but also that she doesn’t put them to track any time soon. We still need some time to understand “A Creature I Don’t Know.” –Matt Carney