Semper Femina by Laura Marling
In selecting “Soothing” as both the first track and first single for this album, Laura Marling might’ve shot herself in the foot without realizing it—it’s an excellent song, probably one of the year’s best, but it cultivates unrealistic expectations for the eight tracks that follow. “Soothing” sounds legitimately fresh in a way very little new music does, and while it carries inescapable echoes of other artists (the bass line reminds me of peak career Tom Waits), the overall impression is that Laura Marling is paving new ground in her brand of folk music.
Unfortunately—you knew there was going to be an “unfortunately”—there are only small glimpses of that innovation on the rest of the album. “The Valley” has good melodic interplay between the guitar, Marling’s vocals, and its string section, but suffers from flat production, which dampens the impact of its beauty. In “Wild Once”, Marling tries for an off-the-cuff vocal style that would work much better in a less layered song; it sounds awkward when paired with the track’s detailed arrangement. Surprisingly, the two best tracks apart from “Soothing” are the two most straightforward country songs here: “Always This Way” and “Nothing, Not Nearly”, which feature some of the best lyrics on the album along with the tightest vocals. I suspect this album will resonate differently with different people, though, so if you take one thing away from this review, it’s that you should absolutely listen to “Soothing”, but don’t set your hopes too high for Semper Femina based on its quality. Who knows, though—you might be pleasantly surprised. B
50 Song Memoir by The Magnetic Fields
Well, this is a nice surprise! 50 new Magnetic Fields songs, and they’re all pretty good! In case you didn’t know the backstory of this release, to commemorate his 50th birthday, Stephin Merritt took it upon himself to write a song for and about each year of his life. It’s the band’s second attempt at a long form album, but there’s a hitch: their first attempt happened to be the greatest triple album of all time. I wasn’t expecting this one to surpass it, and it doesn’t; though it’s less musically uneven than 69 Love Songs, nothing here comes close to the highs of “The Book of Love” or even “Busby Berkeley Dreams”. That doesn’t mean 50 Song Memoir doesn’t have its own charm, though—inconsistencies in quality between discs aside, there are some real gems here. There are too many songs of interest to list in a short review, but I will say that I’m particularly fond of the storytelling in “They’re Killing Children Over There” (with a hilarious twist at the end), the obvious but well-executed marriage of music and lyrical content in “How to Play the Synthesizer”, and the distinctly Merritt melancholy of “I Wish I Had Pictures”. I could fruitlessly compare it to its spiritual predecessor all day, but I’ll say this instead: if you compiled every other album The Magnetic Fields has released since 1999 into one 55-track album, 50 Song Memoir would absolutely blow it out of the water. Two and a half hours is a hefty commitment, but if you take the time, you’ll have fun with this one. B PLUS
Goths by The Mountain Goats
Goths doesn’t sound much like The Moon and Antarctica, but I couldn’t get Modest Mouse’s 2000 album out of my thoughts as I listened to the new Mountain Goats record. Both are fairly left-field releases from their respective artists, swapping concise and lyrically dense songs for meandering instrumental stretches and a more subdued atmosphere. They’re also both totally awesome.
“No guitars” was the gimmick shamelessly flaunted throughout the album’s promotional cycle (though the pedant in me wants to point out that basses are still considered guitars in a stage setting, dammit!), but Goths never feels restricted. The band’s songcraft is as confident as ever, as the piano-driven “Rain In Soho” proves straight out the gate, blending Darnielle’s unparalleled lyrical abilities with a stirring choir and dark, ominously gated drums in a nail-biting five-minute crescendo. From there, it’s highlight after highlight—“The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement” has an instantly memorable chorus, “Unicorn Tolerance” is just plain weird and I love it, “Shelved” has bassist Peter Hughes belting a standout final verse, and “Abandoned Flesh” shows John Darnielle in full storyteller mode, making it the band’s best closing track since “Pale Green Things” and a succinct mission statement for the album as a whole. Though it’s a tad long, and there are points where I get the sense that the band is still feeling out this new sound, Darnielle and crew have crafted a marvelous record that earns its place in the esteemed Mountain Goats canon while standing tall on its own merits.
…Pontiac. A MINUS