Album reviews: Laura Marling | Grandaddy | François & the Atlas Mountains

Written on the road, Laura Marling's new album adds a touch of country grit and soul to her sultry sound

Laura Marling
Laura Marling

Laura Marling: Semper Femina ****

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Grandaddy: Last Place ****

30th Century Records

François & the Atlas Mountains: Solide Mirage ****


The title of Laura Marling’s sixth album translates as “always a woman”. Banish all thoughts of Billy Joel’s cheesy hotel bar standard, or other sincere but worthy attempts to boil down the female experience into a pop song. As in almost everything she does, Marling approaches her theme from unexpected angles.

The little information this singular songwriter has drip-fed about Semper Femina is that she felt she was initially writing a batch of songs in celebration of women from the perspective of a man. But like her forebears Kate Bush and PJ Harvey, Marling was simply training her curious gaze on her own sex and channelling her own poetically marshalled passions into the songs.

Taster single Soothing is as sultry as she has ever sounded, her enraptured voice breathing grace notes and seductive but subtle flourishes over a brooding double bass-dominated jazzy backdrop. The Valley, a Leonard Cohenesque paean to an idealised love, is closer to the Marling of old, cooing in siren-like harmony with her soft lead alto over her mesmeric picking and tremulous, romantic string arrangements.

Don’t Pass Me By is a tasty gumbo of flavours – delicate burnished blues meets 70s easy listening croon, with pizzicato strings and rhythmic, resonant guitar playing, studded with the noirish twang of lead guitar, while Nothing, Not Nearly is all assurance in its execution, with Marling almost insouciant in her opinion that “once it’s gone, it’s gone, love waits for no one”.

Marling relocated from London to LA a number of years ago. Although she has now returned to her old stomping ground, that aching transatlantic pull is still there, though it manifests itself less as the Joni Mitchell-in-Laurel Canyon folk rock of old. Now there is a touch of country grit and southern soul in her delivery, with shades of Linda Ronstadt, of Al Green even on the gorgeous warm textures of Wild Fire, where she is accompanied by the golden touch of organ.

These songs were written on the road but sound reassuringly centred. Working with producer Blake Mills, she has created a mellow, calming listen, unhurried yet never outstaying its welcome, seemingly unfussy yet decorated with exquisite but always subtle detail. There is a certain classicism at work in Marling’s music – it’s never difficult to spot her singer/songwriter influences, yet she has long since sculpted a warm, enveloping sound which is instantly recognisable as her own and which she now simply inhabits with graceful authority.

Californian outfit Grandaddy are

the latest cult heroes to return to

the fray. Last Place, released on Danger Mouse’s label, is their first album in a decade, but little has changed in their sonic world, where indie pastorals meet retro electronics, like a less lysergic Flaming Lips, and the urgent garagey thrust of Chek Injin contrasts with the slacker sweetness of I Don’t Wanna Live Here Anymore. Frontman Jason Lytle’s distinctive breathy voice won’t be for everyone but he is perfectly suited to the delicate, desolate croon of This Is The Part.

The now Brussels-based François Marry is not quite of the same

vintage as the Grandaddy guys but François & the Atlas Mountains continue to make elegant strides forward in terms of inhabiting a judiciously mixed musical landscape with their light and lithe use of African rhythms on the likes of Jamais Deux Pareils. Marry is a thoughtful, precise writer but even he needs to cut loose at times, and so he impishly calls up the spirit of Belgium’s most famous punk, Plastic Bertrand, on the hell-for-leather Bête Morcelée.


Nielsen: Flute & Clarinet Concerto; Aladdin Suite ****

Signum Classics

Denmark’s most celebrated composer Carl Nielsen is the focus in this refreshing release by Paavo Järvi and the Philharmonia Orchestra. They deal first with two of his woodwind concertos, the Flute Concerto of 1926, and the Clarinet Concerto of several years later, described at the time of its premiere as “music from another planet.” Samuel Coles is soloist in the Flute Concerto, at one with its fresh effervescence and teasing temperament, delightfully frisky in the second movement allegretto. The Clarinet Concerto offers something altogether more gauche, a contrast captured in Mark van de Wiel’s characterful solo delivery. Järvi completes the disc with the charm of the Aladdin Suite, a concert version of Nielsen’s stage music for the Royal Theatre’s 1919 production of the Arabian tale. These are straightforward but colourful character pieces that are well worth getting to know.

Ken Walton


Geoff Lakeman: After All These Years ****

Geoff Lakeman Music

Geoff Lakeman’s singing and concertina playing sound is soaked in West Country tradition. At 69, the patriarch of the Cornish music family of Sean, Seth and Sam, plus daughter-in-laws Kathryn Roberts and Cara Dillon, all of whom contribute instrumentation and vocals here, has released his own debut album.

There is contemporary indictment in Roger Bryant’s The Farmer’s Song, Reg Meuross’s England Green & England Grey (with a harmony vocal from the great Nic Jones) and Lakeman’s own, powerful Rule and Bant, while the plaintive Americana of Wide, Wide River to Cross features warm toned vocals from Dillon. Traditional numbers include the transportation ballad Jim Jones, and a fine ensemble rendition of The Green Cockade (a Cornish version of the better-known white variety).

There is an engaging, family kitchen air about the album, and Lakeman’s singing is earthy, direct and movingly empathetic to the songs.

Jim Gilchrist