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I confess, I find Ms. Marling’s prodigious, precocious talent and her back-story more consuming than her actual albums. Having been introduced to the world at the tender age of 17 singing backing vocals to then-squeeze Charlie Fink in London’s original Noah & the Whale three years ago, and having been produced by Fink on her promising 2008 solo debut, Alas I Cannot Swim while still 18, the young couple eventually split up—and a crestfallen Fink frankly grieved about it on the newer-Noah, the anguished, unconvincingly-titled The First Day of Spring . Whereas, as if to fulfill the prophesy of Paul McCartney’s 1966 Beatles heartbreaker “For No One,” (whose protagonist is heartbroken as the girl shrugs and moves on), Marling is not playing Joni Mitchell’s Blue to Graham Nash’s Songs For Beginners . Using three members of the quite capable Mumford & Sons and a few others as her backing group, she leaves only the barest hints in songs such as “Hope in the Air” and “Blackberry Stones” that she might “have known someone, but now he’s gone, she doesn’t need him”—or really much of anything percolating in her mind. Which is too bad. Only 20 years old, she possesses some of the more striking eyes and striking voices in modern folk-pop, and a grim gravity that you can’t shake if you listen to this second LP more than once or twice. She’s a serious lass, and there’s not a moment of frivolity, though neither is there any overwrought bleakness, which helps explain her second-straight Mercury Prize nomination, and this LP hitting #4 in the U.K. charts. And the production is strong as is the fire in her voice on a track such as the standout closing title track. What’s lacking in the previous nine songs, though, is that emotional connectivity–both in her delivery and in her circumspect, albeit pleasantly wrought lyrics. She seems to reveal so little about her or any passions she might have, about her love life, social issues, friends, people she meets, politics, or really anything else she might feel strongly about. Worse, she also lacks for any songs as hauntingly catchy as her album’s sober mood. Looking a little like Feist on her sleeve, she sounds instead like a cross between the aforementioned Mitchell, or Judy Collins covering Mitchell, with a little mild lilt in her voice a la Natalie Merchant, while her delicate finger-picking also aspires to Mitchell, and more distinctly Brit folk legends, from Bert Jansch to Shirley Collins and Davy Graham. But with so much going for her, she doesn’t seem to cross the finish line, leaving one more intrigued than satisfied. At her age and ability, there is doubtlessly more to come—a third LP is due for February 2011, and she might yet cross it before she’s much elder. But she needs to move a listener ultimately a lot more than she does. Like Fink—if not necessarily for the same reason/subject—she needs to open up and bleed.
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