The first fifteen minutes of Laura Marling’s set at Music Hall Of Williamsburg segues between the four songs that open her masterful new album Once I Was An Eagle, with guitar runs rushing up the frets between songs, until it seems to have become one song or a pop opera, or different moments in a relationship. It doesn’t build to, but it should build to this: “When we were in love (if we were in love), when we were in love , you were a dove and I rose above you and preyed”.
Never has a single couplet defined an album better and Laura steadies herself before delivering it and then moving into the litanies and threats of “I Know”. In this moment the comparisons we have been trying to draw Laura into changes upon us. The “preying” pun is so powerful (“Pray For me” is another song on the album) it is mindful of Elvis Costello back then, and the firming up and dissolving of a relationship of the four songs, in the album they are set apart, even the tuning is different, are Costello deep. Laura is leading you into the imperial bedroom.
When the suite is over, Laura takes a breather to retune her guitar and make small talk; she has claimed to feel herself getting used to the rhythms of America but not for the last time she brings up her Englishness. And I guess it is an Englishness in a manner of speaking: she pours herself out in song, straight at us, intense, her long white neck straining upwards, like really long or at least it looks that way, and chases herself between ritual humiliation and self-serving self-regard, and then says no sex please, we’re British; here take a joke about cars before I sing about buying one.
But we were discussing Costello and this is true: I react towards Laura nearly exactly the same way I reacted to Costello in 1978. Forget that she’s a little knock out even if far from dressed for the occasion tonight, and worry the woman out. Her father is Sir Charles William Somerset Marling, the Fifth Marling Baronet; now over here that doesn’t mean anything, but in the UK it sure does and while the 1950s paradise postponed socialist summer meant that being Royalty absolutely does not entail, how you say, big bucks, it implies a sort of historic dignity. Look at it this way: while Chris Martin feels like a royalty striver, Laura Marling is the real thing, and among the many differences, one difference is effort. Or how about this, Chris plays Margaret Thatcher to Laura’s Princess Di.
The fifth song is the single Laura has been pushing (she played it on Letterman) “Master Hunter” –although given her options I am not sure why. It is a good song with a great line of patter, “You can get me on the phone but you can’t make me stay”. Plus, with its blue note and blueprint bridge, everything speeded up in what is a songwriting signature, it is a cathartic swing into what? The anti-Liz Phair. Instead of “I woke up alone, I didn’t know where I was at first…”, Marling’s reposition is “You let men into your bed, they don’t know you well, they can’t get into my head, they don’t have a hope in hell”. But it seems to be circling back round again to beginning. In a musical it would be exposition. Still, there is no denying the intensity of Marling’s performance. She all but spits it out and then stops to retune and tell us a story about nearly running over a hippie at Woodstock (Cars,man).
At sixteen Laura, the youngest of three girls (meaning there is no heir to the Marling Baronet) left home and her father’s recording studio to become a fixture on the London neo-English folk movement which would give us Noah And The Whale and Mumford and Sons (one of which would become very very big) and became something of a legend. Marling would say to Spin.com: “I’m not an awkward 18-year-old anymore and I don’t feel like an awkward 18-year-old anymore. I’m more comfortable in my skin than I used to be. And that’s a great relief, my God! And also, I care a bit less. I’m not as self-aware as I was when I was 19 or 20, when I either wanted to fit in or to stand out. Now I know where I fit in and that brings a bit of comfort.” She is all of 23 now but if she is what she claims she was, destroying a folk singer and having him write an album about it was an odd way to show it. And me? I didn’t think much of the entire neo-folk movement. I kept on saying to myself “yeah great, but Sandy Denny is dead and you, sir, are no Sandy Denny”. It led me to seriously underestimate, Laura. Listening to 2007’s “My Manic And I”, I can hear what I didn’t care for in her. It is a touch precocious and serious, maybe because 16 year olds are a touch precocious and serious. I essentially didn’t bother with Laura for the following three years, till a Sunday concert for Jane Birkin at the Town Hall and Marling’s early evening McKittrick Hotel gig coincided and I decided to go to both since I had time to kill. On a Sunday in December 2011, wearing a turtle neck sweater and having serious problems with tuning (a habitual problem as she retunes every other song in concerts) and a particularly temperemental guitar, Laura performed the sort of set that had us seriously wondering when you were gonna see her again. I changed my mind -I got it.
Meanwhile, at MHOW Laura was singing a new song, a study in spiritual self-abnegation, “David” and later on the spiritually bruised “Hell By Another name”. Both these songs sound less like Linda Thompson and more like Terre Roche and both of them have a tortured backstory we don’t know about, but with Laura there is always a hint. I wrote that she is the reverse of Taylor Swift, Swift rejects love because she wants a love that devours her and can’t find one, and Laura rejects love because she wants a love that won’t devour her but can’t find one. It is the is she praying for love or preying on love? Costello,wanted a love that would destroy him so that he could be an emotional Phoenix, and Marling is destroyed and becomes an emotional Eagle soaring above, both preyed and praying.
On stage, Laura is joking us but how much is she kidding when she says she spent the past month in a car driving herself from town to town. I once called her a John Fowles character, but this is more like Nabakovian in search of an America as an endless highway of motels and junkfood and gum wrappers. It doesn’t sound like a search for self (and certainly Laura seems to hold no truck in doubt or a lack of who she is) but rather a lost and foundness. You just know she is gonna leave L.A. (Where she now lives) for Constantinople or the Galapagos Islands or something. And now it is Fowlesian again; an actress on an obscure Greek Island, or Leonard Cohen’s lover on the way to a vegan retreat. There is a restlessness at odds with a desire for security: it is weird and fearless and like I said, fascinating. I’ve been discussing Costello here and the reason is because , similar to Costello, you want to understand Laura. The hush at MHOW (interrupted, true) is like a staring into a tall drink of water: we are looking for transparency.
The set, just over the hour length, was 14 songs deep, and despite interruptions for tuning (the songs were written in three different tunings, each representing a mood) and Laura claimed of the album “The first part is this confusing ball of chaos and frustration, defiance and aggression. The middle section is sinking into acceptance — a morbid acceptance of reality. The third part is a rebirth, not necessarily bright and hopeful, but innocent.” it doesn’t follow a concept, maybe the way it did at Roulette, this set seemed hellbent to an an inner pathway to a type of hell. Either way, this rebirth isn’t what comes across on stage. Especially with the two new songs, both of which are heartbroken in the first degree, apparently, the hope didn’t last a crossing of the sea.
Marling was, and I don’t think I’ve mentioned this, absolutely superb on stage. She is a magician, opening herself up, singing these soaring songs of preying and praying and telling you to understand, to join her, but then pulling you up short and moving on. Alone on stage, Laura is a stand up comedian telling the story, building to the punchline, but suddenly you aren’t sure how funny it is anymore. She is hiding right in front of you. Laura mentions listening to Dylan’s Bootleg tapes in her car from town to town. I’m guessing she has been listening to the Isle Of Wight live tracks off Another Self Portrait. But after complimenting Dylan for his between songs patter concludes he was probably stoned out of his head. True, but she misses the point. The point is he had Robbie, Levon and the rest of the Band right behind him. Laura plays alone. It might be simpler but it has its own set of downs. It is scary stuff.She is a lone Eagle preying.
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Rocky Kramer’s Rock & Roll Tuesdays Presents “Winter Rock” On Tuesday January 25th, 7 PM PT on Twitch
Rocky Kramer will be hosting “Winter Rock” on this week’s episode of Rocky Kramer’s Rock & Roll Tuesdays on Twitch.
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