September 7, 2008
‘Any Paler and Any Quieter and She’Ll Disappear’
By Simon Price
Teenager Laura Marling is nominated for the Mercury Prize. But is her talent for real or just a flash in the pan? Rock Laura Marling Star of Bethnal Green LONDON Friendly Fires Pure Groove Records LONDONYouth may be wasted on the young, but if so, it's only because they don't always realise what a potent weapon it can be when used against the old. "Wow, look!" breathless publicists and easily led journalists are forever gasping. "The Bloodyawfuls are only 19, and already they can hold a guitar the right way up. Just imagine what they'll sound like when they're 25!"
This kind of flawed logic - how else does one explain the career of the Subways? - doesn't fool me, and I refuse to be impressed by youth alone. Sure, Laura Marling is only 18. Sure, it's a vertiginously queasy feeling to realise that I'm now writing about people who were born in the Nineties. And sure, the story about the time she was refused admission to her own gig for being underage and busked outside on the pavement instead is a cute little anecdote. But I need more.
Laura Marling, in her subtle way, gives plenty. Hopes weren't high: a sometime member of the mostly atrocious Noah and the Whale and the daughter of an old folkie, Marling - nominated for the Mercury Prize with her debut album Alas I Cannot Swim - falls into that egregious category "singer-songwriter" (a rash on the complexion of the body pop so virulently uncontrollable that I've considered lobbying Parliament for a surtax on acoustic guitars). And on the face of it, the winsome pixie-ish waif, playing a low- key Bestival warm-up without her backing band, ought to be utterly orthodox. She isn't, quite.
"I'm pale, and I'm burning a little..." she explains, comically reminiscent of Joan of Arc at the stake, her blond pageboy haircut and the billowing white shirt of a Dickensian urchin glaring under the spotlights which she has just asked to be turned down. She also asks for her guitar to be quieter in the monitors. Any paler and any quieter and she'll disappear altogether. This, you feel, wouldn't displease her entirely.
It's bad news, though, for scores of people in the queue that crocodiled down a whole block of Bethnal Green Road from the door of this pub-sized venue (as far as Tower Hamlets parking shop) and must now crane their necks and strain their ears on the pavement outside.
Marling's reticence could be taken for shyness. I actually take her understated effortlessness as a sign of supreme confidence. Her eyelids are only ever half open. Even her voice, which features occasionally odd vowel sounds (as though she's Irish or maybe Norwegian) holds everything back. Her lips hardly move, in that over- elocuted way that the very posh have. The most startling moment in any Laura Marling song is the abrupt strum which signals the end.
The songs themselves contain anti-romantic twists and defy lyrical cliche: she doesn't believe in "everlasting love" or "fairy- tale ends" (such cynicism on such young shoulders). I'm reminded of Joni Mitchell's The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which is high praise indeed.
It's too soon for sainthood. But it's not too soon to predict that Laura Marling is more than just another Tanita Tikaram - a flash in the pan one minute, flushing down the pan the next.
It's funny, the way that in retrospect - or, sometimes, even at the very moment of its release - it's evident that one record can launch a thousand bands. You can almost see it, like the diaspora of embers fanning out and falling downwards from the apex of an overhead firework.
One such record, released earlier this decade, was "House of Jealous Lovers" by The Rapture. As soon as you heard the audaciously sprawling looseness of its groove (essentially a reprisal of Talking Heads/Pigbag-style punk-funk), you knew nothing would be the same again. Collective sales of cowbells in London and New York rocketed rapidly to rival those of alpine Switzerland.
Of course, the post-Rapture splurge of no-wave revivalism has been feeling all played out for quite some time now (with latecomers Foals just sneaking under the portcullis with special exemption for being vaguely unusual). So, why does the world need Friendly Fires?
Young men in old shirts, the St Albans band are straight out of university, and their facial hair has the downy look of a first attempt, uncoarsened by razors. This in-store show, timed to launch their self-titled debut album, is impressive against the odds (the odds, in this case, being the fact that it's taking place in the unflattering environs of a record shop).
After what sounds like a rhythmic tuning-up session, including old-school Doctor Who special-effects sounds conjured from their Korg MS20, it's only a minute at most before the first cowbell comes in, and a set of maracas sits ominously atop an amp. They're post- Rapture to the bone. But the nine-year-old boy pogoing down the front, who was barely out of nappies when "House of Jealous Lovers" was released, doesn't care. Why should I?
Using chaotic, almost African rhythms (though not to a Vampire Weekend degree), Friendly Fires songs often begin as a deceptively quasi-atonal mess, until it all comes together in one big harmonic chord or burst of melody. It never works better than during "On Board" - stand-out track on the band's Paul Epworth-produced debut album - when drummer Jack Savidge and bassist Ed Gibson share a mic and work the cowbell and maracas at the same time, and Ed Macfarlane, their mini-David Byrne of a singer (although he looks more like a junior Mike d'Abo in his Manfred Mann days), repeats the mantra-like chorus till it gets its hooks so deep into you that your legs move at its command.
Macfarlane dedicates their final song to "the kid in the blue top who's got his fingers in his ears, semi-enjoying it, but dancing anyway". Kids do the funniest things...
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