Playing by the new Brit/folk rulebook

Laura Marling

I am no Yankee anglophile, but I do confess a reflexive positive assumption about most things British. It has been with me for as long as I have been with me. In my own musical story, no American band matches the primacy or enduring value of the Beatles. It was Elvis Costello, XTC and Squeeze – not the Ramones, the Cars and Blondie – who rescued me from me prog and fusion and reignited my appetite for pithy pop.

When I feel like a Neil Young, I reach for a cold Richard Thompson. I don’t do tabloid pop, but if I did, it would be Lilly Allen, or it would have been Amy Winehouse. Funny starts with Monty Python. I can’t do a British accent for beans, and this has caused me actual feelings of inadequacy and inhibition. The best that I can muster is an accidental Cockney that morphs forthwith into some kind of rare and hideous jaw disease. This has kept me out of many reindeer games.

So my complete distaste for Mumford & Sons, the band at the head of the new class of British folk/rock, comes as a mild surprise to me – especially since I am so fond of that first round of British progressive folk: the one that gave us Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, Richard and Linda Thompson, Bert Jansch. What some friends hear as a refreshingly organic naïveté in Mumford & Sons, I hear as a cosmetically scruffy pop calculation. What some hear as passionate, propulsive and unrelenting drive in the music, I hear as unrelenting only, one-trick, lacking any kind of rhythmic flex and give.

What some hear as an opulent emotional urgency in the lyrics, I hear as an opulent emotional urgency almost completely unsubstantiated and unwarranted. Marcel Duchamp described how grueling and difficult it was to write pure nonsense; sense kept happening against his will. I find the lyrics of Mumford & Sons to be similarly virtuosic in their pure abstraction, their lack of image, context, narrative and causality of any kind.

You would think that they’d stumble into some pedestrian detail once in a while, but nope; it’s clean. They start at 11 on the worked-up scale, stay there with heroic stamina and never once reveal why. And that may be the heart of my beef: The brazen, noncommittal insert-your-story-here emotionality of it rubs me in a way in which I don’t like being rubbed – my failure, I am sure, for they are doing quite well, and many people whom I love and respect love and respect them.

This is to explain, to myself at least, why British folk/rock songwriter Laura Marling, who will appear at the Colony Café in Woodstock on Thursday, October 25 as part of WDST’s Pink October fundraiser, is good, is different, is better than her much-more-famous friends in Mumford & Sons. Marling plays by the same new Brit/folk rulebook: the swelling/subsiding tidal dynamics and the epic forms, the hootenanny UK string aerobics, the fairly token folk referentiality – though Marling has more Joni-inspired delicacy in her tunes, more raga drone, more shades of blue and just more range and musical wit generally.

And – significantly – Marling walks the same line lyrically, going for a heightened emotional poignancy that is never quite specified or tied to content, a mood of import and portent without many whole stories or situations at the root (or is it the iceberg theory at work?). So my issue is not with the strategy per se, but with the execution. Marling makes it work for me; her brand of vagueness and narrative fracture is rich in image, evocation and symbolic suggestion.

Further, she is just likable, her voice wan and pleasantly husky at the same time, her command of melody and harmonic movement rich and clearly growing. (An almost-shocking melodic deficiency is my other main complaint with her mainstage Brit/folk peers. Since when were Brits or Celts allowed to be melodically hackneyed? They’re not, I say.)

Marling, it is habitually noted, is young. Likely, her youth will continue to be noted well into her commercial dotage. And as everyone says, she sounds old for someone so young: an old soul. Some of her best songs seem to be written from an end-of-life perspective, such as the beautiful folk yarn “All My Rage,” the last track on her latest, A Creature I Don’t Know. It is a stormy song of expiation and release, in which the singer lets go not just of anger, but also of human attachment. She tips her cup to the raging sea, and the image works; the emotion scores. So why is it, when most people aim for that kind of deep universal, that they end up with something merely common? Got me.

Laura Marling appears at the Colony Café in Woodstock on Thursday, October 25 as part of Radio Woodstock’s 14th annual Pink October Fundraiser benefiting the Dyson Center for Cancer Care at Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie. The doors open at 7 p.m. and the show begins at 8. Tickets cost $30. The Colony Café is located at 22 Rock City Road in Woodstock. For more information, visit https://radiowoodstock.com.

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