Two Reviews – Laura Marling “Once I was an Eagle” and “The Eagle Ball” Live experience

Two reviews in one today. I was lucky enough to get hold of tickets for Laura Marling’s “Secret Cinema” experience this June, which came round shortly after her most recent Studio album.

Firstly – if you have tickets for the gig and are yet to go, please refrain from reading this until after you have been. In short, spoilers alert!

The disc first. I am a long time Laura fan and have been along for the ride since the first album came out of nowhere to become one of my favourite of its year. She is daring and unique while wearing her influences on her sleeve, and never anything but interesting. With each album since she has become more daring as her style and vision has matured. The songs now focus less on immediacy, aware perhaps that her audience is a patient, artistic one, willing to allow her work to sink in over successive listens. Or perhaps, equally, she is maturing and refining her vision, tailored largely around solo guitar work and her ever illustrious poetry.

‘Once I was an Eagle’ opens bravely indeed. A four track medley that runs over 15 minutes, with repeating melodic rises and chord patterns while separating the sections enough to risk tedium. Her vocal is mixed forward and it is all about the words. The ‘beast’ from her previous album makes an appearance in line one, adding a knowing nod for long term fans.

‘Master Hunter’ was the radio release for this album, and while catchy it is an odd choice for radio – not that the record is brimming with pop cuts, of course. The track mixes jazz chords with blues acoustic and manages to be both uncomfortable and endearing all at once. This is no slight however; some of the best art takes us out of our comfort zone and rightly so. The chords are intriguing and coloured, the bass is light and the mix live, vibrant and very to-the-point.

As well as opening on a medley, there is a general desire for tracks to run on from one another. ‘Little Love Caster’ opens with the line ‘Yes sir/Yes I am a master’, immediately after the song ‘Master hunter’. A consistency of lyrical themes matches the melodic nods between tracks and production continuity. This is an album that was thought of as a whole from the get-go.

‘Little Love Caster’ has a swirling sound running throughout at the back of the mix, most likely the sound of analogue recording gear whirling in the background, which suggests this track was recorded in the control room of the studio. In other places on the album one can hear other non-musical sounds – traffic noise, guitar clunks, whispers – suggesting an organic approach to recording, leaving the humanity untouched. In an age of autotuned vocals and processed, polished sound, artists like Marling (and their producers, naturally) are to be applauded for keeping music and sound natural where relevant.

But the studio and its inherent trickery are not ignored. This is not a cheap record, with clear and well balanced tones from her vocals and guitars. Effects are used, creatively, where they benefit. On ‘Little Love Caster’ Laura announces ‘I will be your ghost’, then sings a soft, eerie ‘oooh’, clearly endowed with just enough reverb to be noticed.

The second half of the album is more traditional; single songs standing alone, and is oddly the more accessible half. ‘Little Bird’ is a lovely, interesting number. The opening is a quaint, folksy affair, the vocal melody following the guitar lazily. But before long a jazz chord triggers a change of sound that very much evokes Joni Mitchell’s lesser loved album “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”. A clever transition that works charmingly and shows the depth of her musical palette.

Sonically the most noteworthy change on this disc is the organ, which features prominently in a few tracks for the first time. Her vocal is often more on the spoken side than ever before, pushing poetry at us as much as song. This suits her however, and octave jumps from her chest voice upwards never feel stilted. The online twitterings that this album was recorded in one-take throughout may well be true. Nothing feels overly laboured, bends in notes occasionally land (ever so slightly) off the target note, and the album as a whole feels rather “live” in places – dynamics are far from flat and drums are roomy and organic.

She is changing with each album, and is proving to be a fascinating artists for long term fans.  We know some elements will stay the same but she is far from stagnating artistically.

Which brings us to the “gig” – The Eagle ball.

To my knowledge this is the first time Secret Cinema has teamed up with a musician. Known for their immersive experiences tied to classic films, we were as such given a hint of what to expect. Shortly before the gig an email arrived detailing the dress code – 1930’s Black Tie no less – and an initially bewildering list of requirements, including items to bring and a even a dance to learn. The Social Networks lit up with concern, prompting a gentle reply from the organisers, stating nothing was required per se, more ‘strongly suggested’. Regardless, never has a gig required so much forethought.

But, clearly, this was no usual gig. This was an intimate evening in the setting of a converted hotel, or boarding school, I couldn’t quite tell. The staff were dressed in period costume and doubled as actors and performers. A drama/art production played out amongst the audience in the rooms and hallways of the hotel. An air of murder-mystery was hard to shake with the setting and costume; my general love for Agatha Christie stories notwithstanding.

The main rooms were themed and open for play and engagement. A billiards room, a typewriter room, a crafts room and others, each inviting us to wander through and involve ourselves in the event as much or as little as we liked. The cocktails were strong and tasty and the costume really made the evening. Mobile phones and camera were banned. The most notable effect of this was that people could not fiddle with their phones and cameras, instead fully focusing on the event around them.

A chapel on the side of the building hosted the support acts, a walk-in walk-out affair which worked as another installation and proved a nice attraction (I was unable to grab their names). And Laura herself appeared on the balcony unannounced half way through the preshow, playing a cheeky but pretty acoustic rendition of Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark”. And why not!

The “drama” playing out in the hallways was, perhaps purposely, obscure. At times a lovers tiff was invoked, then a class war was hinted at between servant and lady – it was largely impossible to follow. It culminated in a dance and drama routine in the main hallway which was part ballet, part modern dance.

A bell rings. We are directed across to an hall for the main event. On stage a three piece string section greets us, playing the acoustic interlude from the new album, a nice touch. Laura joins them onstage and opens with her new medley. Fifteen minutes without pause for applause is a brave opening, even more so than on record. But it works, we lap it up.

After the medley the band disappear and it is just us and Laura thereon out.  The room has lovely acoustics and the audience is a polite one, befitting the set up. Her stage banter is still minimal but she manages to avoid making us uncomfortable even when tuning between songs. Her guitar tuning and switches were all down to her, keeping with the intimacy of the event.

The set is relatively short. At around 60 minutes, she focuses almost entirely on her new album. She is an expert at using loud and soft to add colour to her songs, and each number holds its own. I have seen Laura once before in a very different setting, The Hammersmith Apollo. Perhaps this event was a reaction to her growing fan base but desire to keep her gigs small and intimate. The Apollo gig used a full band for much more of the set and felt like a very different set. Both good, and both playing to the setting. And both should be maintained – She has a wonderful sound when the band are brought along, so it would be a shame for her full arrangements to be left solely in the studio.

This was an odd event to review. It was more an event than a typical gig, and in some respects you got out what you were willing to put in. By dressing the part, immersing yourself in the spectacle (and the cocktails) it was a charming and unique evening of drama and song. My main criticism, small as it is, was that the drama felt like it was largely unconnected with Laura’s Music. Indeed, little about her screams ‘1930s period drama’, and there was little pay off from the events themselves. They simple happened, we watched , and then came the gig. Perhaps there are lyrically touchstones I have missed while getting to know the new album, but they must be deep if so. Regardless, this is a particular quibble against an otherwise lovely evening of song and spectacle. A brave move from the young singer and more proof that we never quite know what she has waiting for us.