June ’17 Earworm- “Soothing” by Laura Marling

When I listened to “Soothing” again recently- this time with the comfort of a quiet background and decent earphones- the epic track blew me away and left an earworm in my brain.

I first heard of Laura Marling in my car while listening to BFM (an English radio station in Kuala Lumpur that plays everything but Top-40) earlier this year. It was the latest single of her highly-acclaimed Semper Femina album, “Soothing”. The BFM deejay compared her with Radiohead, which is akin to comparing every good movie to The Godfather- a bit unimaginative. As I was concentrating on navigating through heavy traffic on a notorious road (you’ll be stuck forever if you do not focus), I did not give her music the consideration it deserved. But the music had enough going throughout the four minutes to leave a last impression on me. In that sense, Laura Marling does compare favourably to Radiohead. But Laura Marling is a songwriter first; Radiohead less so.

“Soothing” is a perfect song. Laura Marling delivers a seductive melody with deliciously vulnerable vocals. The lyrics go hand in hand with her vulnerability- it appears to be an a rejection of her ex in song- the lyrics are analysed by other listeners here (the salacious interpretation of “who touched the rim” is amusing).

What makes Soothing even better is the captivating instrumentation. It is a standout not only among the mainstream, but also among Laura Marling’s own catalogue. Her typical Joni Mitchell-like guitar work is replaced by a delicious bass line and ambient strings. The result is a cinematic aural landscape that compliments the soaring chorus. Laura Marling’s voice echoes out into a subtly ominous organ-led coda that allows the listener to ponder the weight of her impassioned words.

The song is moody but majestic. On Semper Femina, it serves as a strong opener which would probably stun fans who are more familiar with her lighter, occasionally Dylanesque songs. I do think it is her best song on Semper Femina, and one of the best of 2017. With this masterpiece in “Soothing”, Laura Marling has unwittingly thrown the gauntlet to the new generation of artists to craft songs that are melodically, musically and emotionally profound.

Check out the intriguing “Soothing” music video, which was directed by Laura Marling herself.

May ’17 Earworm: “Drive Home” by Steven Wilson

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The album cover for “The Raven That Refused To Sing”

Although I listen to music as diversely as most millennials these days, I do not have a single, diverse playlist like most millennials these days. I tend to go into cycles of listening to the a single artist or genre for months. For a good few months of late last year, I was listening exclusive to the Bee Gees, whose earlier works leading up to Odessa were criminally underrated. Recently, I am listening to a lot of Steven Wilson- the prog prince of darkness.

English artist Steven Wilson has been around for 3 decades and is most recognised as the lead singer of Porcupine Tree. At the risk of oversimplification, the music of Porcupine Tree is dark, moody, heavy and weighty. But what separates Porcupine Tree from other bands that might occupy a similar niche is Steven Wilson, who has a Trent Reznor-like approach to realising his artistic vision and also possesses a mellow singing voice that cuts through layers of dense music with great effect.

One Steven Wilson song that has stuck to my head throughout the month of May is “Drive Home”, from the 2013 album “The Raven That Refused To Song”. Although my favourite song on The Raven is “Luminol”- a rare progressive epic that, to my ridiculous delight, celebrates vintage Yes (and Chris Squire)- it is Drive Home that cannot leave the head (check out the Drive Home music video). The relatively down-tempo track comes after the exciting album opener Luminol, so it took a few listens for the track to become a pernicious earworm in my head.

The piece opens with a plaintive guitar melody, followed by Steven Wilson’s signature guitar arpeggios that can summon dark clouds over the most cheerful summer wedding. Steven Wilson’s voice sounds distant and gentle. As I listen to the track on earphones amid the warm, tropical climate of Kuala Lumpur, Steven Wilson clinically delivers the cold, depressing Autumn of England into my ears. And the chorus does not take the form of a loud hook accompanied with grandiose power chords like 90% of the minor rock ballads. Instead, Steven Wilson employs light acoustic strumming and sumptuously sinister strings (is that a mellotron?) to deliver the hook.

The real highlight of the track is the guitar solo, performed by virtuoso-meets-muso (they don’t always meet, you know), Guthrie Govan. His solo begins with sparse, maudlin notes which lulls the listener into a false sense of security before building up  into a terrifying bluesy crescendo with chromatic notes expertly weaved in to disarm the listener. It’s shocking and exhilarating. If David Gilmour’s solo on Comfortably Numb were New-Year’s fireworks, Guthrie Govan’s solo on Drive Home is a volcanic eruption- even if you’re watching from afar, you do not know if you’re safe from the immense power or heat.

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Steven Wilson (left) and Guthrie Govan during The Raven recording sessions. This is a still from Youtube (Video: Steven Wilson – Recording Luminol in LA)

Many people say that Steven Wilson and Radiohead are similar. However, I would argue the main difference between Steven Wilson and Radiohead is the method of evocation. Radiohead relies on apathy and absence in their music to disarm the listener- its music (especially post-Kid A) being spatial, ambient and often mechanical. Steven Wilson on the other hand relies more on musicality, lyrics and progression to connect with the listener. And while Radiohead aims for the abstract, Steven Wilson’s music is deliberately dark and human. And Drive Home epitomises Steven Wilson’s music.

I have every intention of posting what I think of The Raven as it is a unique album by the standards of the 21st century in the future. For now, I will be taking my time exhausting the earworm that Drive Home has unwittingly planted.