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Live review: Laura Marling at Largo at the Coronet

February 5, 2010 |  4:50 pm

Laura The one moment of real levity during the rising English singer-songwriter Laura Marling's set at Largo at the Coronet Thursday night came from the audience. Midway through her show, Marling introduced a new song by saying she had "written it for a film, but I'm a little embarrassed to tell you which one." What followed was a typically articulate folk tune full of deft fret-board runs and her falsetto tales of doomed love. But it felt severe in a way that material from her charming debut, "Alas, I Cannot Swim," did not. 

When she finished, someone from the front rows shouted "Twilight!" The crowd guffawed, and even Marling had to sheepishly grin a bit. It was one of the few points when she seemed to be enjoying herself during a testy and uncharacteristically detached performance.

For one thing, Marling, who is touring to promote her upcoming release, "I Speak Because I Can," has got to figure out how to smoothly swap between guitar tunings onstage. She's otherwise an excellent player, but every second or third song she'd stop the set cold and spend a few minutes getting her instruments up to speed. She tried her best to make light of it, and technical snafus happen to everybody, especially those without guitar techs. But in a room like Largo, where the relationship between performer and audience is more intimate than any in town, those minutes frustratingly add up. 

Those kinds of hitches aside, there was just something unfun in the air during much of her set. At Hotel Cafe a few years ago, her deadpan banter perfectly complemented her lovely yet searing songs; through her music, she offered the most vivid depiction of the teenage psyche in years. But something seems to have changed with the 20-year-old performer. Her new songs feel especially chilly.

That said, it's clear she's maturing emotionally and artistically at a rapid clip, and it showed in many rewarding ways. Her new single, "Devil's Spoke," had a delicious Southern-goth country riff behind it, and she sang it with a steely, Sinead O'Connor-inspired inflection. And she's grown into a fascinating guitarist, spinning artful little thickets of finger picking before dashing off big open chords for punctuation.

But "Rambling Man" was a typical case. It has one of her prettiest choruses to date, tempered with truly nuanced lyrics about accepting the ephemeral nature of love. But somehow it didn't translate live. She rushed through her old material, such as the fantastic suicide ballad "My Manic and I," with a sense that she wanted to get it over with.

On record, new songs such as "Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)" use Marling's talents to better effect, playing up the spareness of her voice and guitar in one turn while giving her a spooky and churning setting to brood in the next. At this show, those sentiments seemed a bit mixed up -- the quiet parts seemed cursory, the loud ones too mannered.

Perhaps it was just an off night for a performer otherwise in total command of her growing talents. With a voice like that, surely she can find someone to keep her guitar tuned on the cheap. 

-- August Brown 

Photo courtesy Press Here Publicity