Laura Marling, "Semper Femina" (More Alarming Records)
Laura Marling takes a giant step on "Semper Femina," nine exceptional songs of vulnerability, bursting with femininity and passion.
Skillfully produced with great sympathy by Blake Mills (Alabama Shakes), his work helps make Marling's sixth album the most magnificent of the bunch. Rob Moose's inventive string arrangements, tinting Marling's songs with hues that stretch from playful to majestic, are another plus.
"Soothing," co-written by Marling and Mills, opens the album on a high note, with sliding basses (electric and acoustic), crackling percussion and sweeping strings.
A percussive effect that's like a horse snorting marks "Wild Fire," a Shelby Lynne-style southern drama, while "Don't Pass Me By" sees Marling exposing her feelings with a restrained Dusty Springfield-like vibrato on lines like, "Can you love me if I put up a fight?"
Marling's guitar playing and songwriting are uniformly terrific and even her range of British-American accents is more mischievous than distracting.
"Next Time" sports a trotting, circular acoustic guitar adding urgency to its guarded optimism. Roman poet Virgil's line that "woman is ever a fickle and changeable thing," whose Latin original inspired Marling's album title, is also quoted in "Nouel," a lovely ballad in which the singer wants to "hit the switch that keeps you from getting on."
The album closer is "Nothing, Not Nearly," Marling distilling the essence of her challenges — "The only thing I learnt in a year ... is nothing matters more than love." The song ends with chirping birds opening the window to the next phase in Marling's career, a unique folk singer creating her own traditions of excellence.