Sometimes the best stuff comes out of nowhere and smacks you in the face.
I’m a fairly meticulous planner. I have a calendar set aside just for new release dates, and I obsessively check information and update it. I know, to the full extent of available information, what’s coming out when until the end of the year, and in some cases beyond. But of course, I only include albums that excite me for one reason or another, so my calendar is mainly full of artists I already know and love. (See the end of this week’s column for a little glimpse.)
But it never works like that, thankfully. My year is never a succession of albums I already expect to be great. There’s some of that, certainly, but every time, I find myself blown away by the surprises more often than the predicted winners. Last year’s top five contained records by Husky, the Punch Brothers and Lost in the Trees, none of whom I’d heard of on January 1, 2012. So while I am certainly looking forward to new records this year from Nine Inch Nails, Moby, Elvis Costello (with the Roots!) and Travis, I’m equally looking forward to whatever unknown pleasures the rest of 2013 has in store for me.
Oh look, here’s one. I owe my friend Kevin Munday for turning me on to English soul-pop wonder Laura Mvula. Her debut album is called Sing to the Moon, and it’s one of those rare yet amazing works that seem to have emerged fully formed. There’s no early fumbling on this album, no hesitation or confusion. Mvula has immediately put her wholly original stamp on a strain of soulful pop that stretches back to the likes of Nina Simone, but in her hands sounds completely modern. It’s a lush and glorious record, and as you may have noticed in last week’s column, it’s already claimed a place among the best of the year.
Mvula is a graduate of the Birmingham Conservatoire, a prestigious institution that usually sees its students go into jazz or classical fields. Despite its pop milieu, you can hear that caliber of composition all over Sing to the Moon. This is patient, complicated stuff, but deceptively so – it never feels studied or fussy. There’s a beautiful soulfulness to the entire album, its flowing melodies built up by horns and strings and the occasional electronic flourish. The music certainly sounds like a labor of love, even before you realize that Mvula played most of the instruments and sang nearly all the vocals herself.
That last bit may not seem impressive if you haven’t heard Sing to the Moon. Within seconds of pressing play, though, you’ll get it – the first track, “Like the Morning Dew,” opens with a veritable choir of Mvulas, in delirious, honey-dripped harmony. Later tracks, like the kinetic “Green Garden,” have tight yet expansive vocal arrangements, all sung by Mvula. Her voice is a definite draw, thick yet supple, full of emotion. Just listen to the way she glides over every syllable of the delightful “Can’t Live With the World.” She’s a great singer, obviously drawing from the Simone school – she never overemphasizes or overemotes, she simply sings, to perfect effect.
Much of Sing to the Moon is slow and languid, and while she certainly does a tremendous job with songs like “Is There Anybody Out There,” it’s the more aggressive ones that truly show off what Mvula can do. The aforementioned “Green Garden” is a highlight, Mvula playing a circular xylophone figure and riffing on it. The standout, though, is “It’s Alright,” a spiritual cousin to Tracy Chapman’s “Born to Fight.” Over an absolutely explosive drumbeat, Mvula lashes out at those who would drag her down: “I will never be what you want and that’s alright, ‘cause my skin ain’t light, and my body ain’t tight, and that’s alright.” On the refrain (“Who made you the center of the universe?”), the chorale of Mvulas is joined by a joyous horn section. It’s awesome.
I do wish the album contained more of this energy, but it’s hard to complain when Mvula is breaking my heart on the delicate “Father, Father” (a clearly personal plea), or stirring my soul with the soaring title track. Sing to the Moon is a calling card announcing a major talent, and discovering it has been a joy. It’s an immediate album that reveals further layers upon repeat listens, like meeting someone special who just grows more interesting the more familiar you get. It’s the best kind of surprise.
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Our other English Laura this week didn’t come out of nowhere, but the sheer quality of her new album is something of a shock nonetheless.
Laura Marling was all of 18 when she recorded her debut solo album, Alas I Cannot Swim, following a brief stint in Noah and the Whale. She’s only 23 now, and on her fourth record, but the meteoric rise of her talent has been something to behold. That fourth album is called Once I Was an Eagle, and it’s sprawling and scathing and far beyond anything she’s done. The word “maturity” is almost a dirty one, conjuring up images of bland corporate pop. But in this case, it simply means what it says – this is an almost frighteningly mature album for such a young songwriter, one that would make artists twice her age feel envious.
Once I Was an Eagle spans 16 songs in 63 minutes, the first four of which blend together into a seamless 15-minute suite. It’s about longing and loss and leaving, about being brave and, finally, about being open to doing it all again. It winds like a snake around its melodies, confident that you will follow it wherever it leads. Marling performed the entire album live in the studio on guitar and voice first, and then she and producer Ethan Johns added other instruments later. The result is a loose and raw attitude that still feels lush – there are strings and pianos and entire drum circles of percussion here, all supporting Marling’s playing and singing at the center.
Had this just been an EP containing the first four tracks, it still would have been remarkable. The opening suite details a difficult yet necessary breakup – in the title track, Marling exclaims, “I will not be a victim of chance or circumstance or romance or any man who could get his dirty little hands on me,” and by the end of “Breathe,” she’s bid it all goodbye: “When you wake you’ll know I’m gone, so don’t follow me.” There are a dozen little melodic tangents here, but Marling confidently leads you down each one with her sharp guitar playing.
There are indeed 12 more songs after this, and they’re all just as good. The explosive “Master Hunter,” with its thunderous percussion, gives way to the spare “Little Love Caster,” which sets a marvelously melancholy mood. It’s two and a half minutes before the cello comes in, and before that, it’s just Marling, leaving so much beautiful silence around her notes. The album is of a piece, feeling like a continuous thought, until the instrumental interlude at track eight. After this, the record takes on a more joyous tone, like taking flight after a long climb up out of a hole.
But that’s not to say that things go twee. Marling’s joy is hard-fought – the down-home “Undine” finds her asking a specter to “make me more naïve,” and on “Once,” she laments that “once is enough to make you think twice about laying your love out on the line.” The protagonist of the Joni Mitchell-esque “Where Can I Go” sighs that “it’s a curse of mine to be sad at night,” and the main character of “Pray for Me” feels haunted by the devil. These songs, however, have a lighter touch than the opening salvo, their eyes on salvation.
And by the time she gets to the end, Marling is ready to love and be loved again. “Here comes a change over me,” she sings in “Love Be Brave.” “I am brave and love is sweet, and silence speaks for him and me.” Closing hymn “Saved These Words” is one of Marling’s most beautiful tunes, a realistic yet lovely song about waiting for someone, patiently and with kindness. “Should you choose to love anyone anytime soon, then I save these words for you,” she sings, with a voice that would open the hardest heart. Love is hardscrabble and difficult work, but when it’s right, it’s sublime.
Once I Was an Eagle is a remarkably assured album, and it’s difficult to believe its author isn’t even 25 yet. Marling never doubts her own vision, or her own ability to realize that vision, and listening to this album, neither will you. It’s a little too sprawling, but that’s the worst that can be said about it. It’s been clear for a while that Marling is a singular talent, but this album brings that talent into sharper, more beautiful focus. This is Marling at 23. Imagine what she’s going to be capable of in 10 years. I’m grinning just thinking about it.
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So all of a sudden, September has turned into a treasure trove of new music. July and August remain somewhat barren, but once we get to that ninth month, we’re in for some greatness.
On September 3 alone, we get the new one from Neko Case, with the amazing title The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You; the new Nine Inch Nails, called Hesitation Marks; the new Okkervil River, entitled The Silver Gymnasium; and the second album from Justin Vernon’s side project Volcano Choir, called Repave. (There’s also the we-promise-this-time final album from Ministry, From Beer to Eternity, but I’m sure that’s going to suck.)
September 10 is Janelle Monae day – her second full-length, The Electric Lady, hits, hot on the heels of her great single “Dance Apocalyptic.” We’ll also get a new Arctic Monkeys and a new Clash box set. The 17th brings us Wise Up Ghost, that collaboration between Elvis Costello and the Roots, as well as New Constellation, the first new Toad the Wet Sprocket album in 16 years, and the self-titled album from MGMT. And then on September 24 we get the self-titled 12th album from Dream Theater and The Last Ship, a 20-song collection from Sting. (I do hope that will be good.)
I’m sure more announcements are on the way, but that’s a damn good month of new music. October, you have your work cut out for you.
See you in line Tuesday morning.