An air of inquiry suffuses Laura Marling's third album, a mood of experimentation as cerebral as it is playful. Opening song The Muse is like nothing she has released before: swaggering and brassy, with her voice pulling angular shapes across saloon-jazz piano and tight brush drums. Salinas and Rest in the Bed are like miniature western movies, with spit and sawdust in the guitar and banjo lines, melodrama in the backing vocals and Marling squinting at a relentless sun as her characters glare fate in the face. As on last year's I Speak Because I Can, Marling can sound curiously dispassionate, slurring the chorus of Don't Ask Me Why, maintaining a studied cool at the start of Sophia as she murmurs: "Where I have been lately is no concern of yours." But when Sophia unfurls into a glowing country romp, the distance between her and us suddenly shrinks – and the feeling is exhilarating.
Due to her youth (16 when she first hit Myspace, 17 when signed to an imprint of EMI, and 18 when her debut album came out), perky-cute looks and extremely British diction, singer/songwriter Laura Marling got a lot of comparisons to Lily Allen in her early buzz, but the quietly compelling Alas I Cannot Swim is not at all a frothy pop confection. A folk-tinged AAA pop record based on Marling's alluringly husky voice and graceful acoustic guitar, Alas I Cannot Swim would be more aptly compared to the likes of Feist, Keren Ann, or Regina Spektor. (In the album's press kit, Marling reveals her primary influence to be Bonnie "Prince" Billy, which also seems appropriate.) Although not to draw too forbidding a comparison, opening track and first single "Ghosts" is most strongly reminiscent of Joni Mitchell circa For the Roses, both in Marling's expressive vocal phrasing and the expert shifts in the arrangement between solo acoustic passages and full-band sections, not to mention an excellently deployed string section. That old-school '70s singer/songwriter vibe predominates throughout the album, in fact.