CD: Laura Marling - Semper Femina. The album of the singer's tattoo motto is designed to make yo

From The Arts Desk

Laura Marling's new album is called Semper Femina - two words the singer-songwriter also has tattooed on her leg. It's Latin for "always a woman". Despite having the motto inscribed on her flesh, Marling claims to find it hard to write intimately about other women. Hence the singer describing her recent spell in Los Angeles as a particularly "masculine time" causing her now to look "specifically at women". Full marks for ambition, some might feel, but might she be overthinking it?

If the underlying rationale can seem a tad laboured, the music is anything but. Fans will be familiar with how her albums are balanced between music that plugs straight into the soul and other, more complex textures. Once I Was an Eagle had an entire side that could be interpreted as extended noodling. Semper Femina blends folk and West Coast rock to be consistently sweet and tuneful - feminine without being too gentle.

The tunes may be rock solid but some of the packaging is more obscure. Take the lead single "Soothing". The video (see overleaf) features footage of two PVC-clad women mysteriously rolling on a bed. It's an arresting image, alright, but the meaning is far from clear. The actual song is a different matter. With its gorgeous double-bass, and sultry vocals, it's as direct an expression of separation and desire as you're likely to hear. Then there's "Wild Once", described as "exploring the archetype of the wild woman and her unrestrained physicality". The reality is a gentle, sensuous, folky piece that reminds you of childhood. Prettiest still is "Nouel", a description of platonic love for a female friend with fingerpicking and melodic overtones redolent of the Beatles' "Blackbird".

Of course, it's hard not to admire an artist being so unashamedly cerebral. But while Marling's desire to explore cultural attitudes head-on is certainly laudable, one can't help feeling her real strength lies in the exceptional beauty of her songs. On that count, Semper Femina rates very highly.

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