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. There's one straight-up pop song here, the deceptively chipper-sounding "Cross Your Fingers" ("...hold your toes/We're all gonna die when the building blows" continues the sweetly sung chorus), but aside from that, Alas I Cannot Swim is the kind of album that takes a couple of listens for its charms to completely sink in. Rather than swath every track in prominent, ear-grabbing hooks, Marling and producer Charlie Fink choose to keep the decorations off in the distance on songs like "The Captain and Hourglass," where swells of pedal steel stay buried deep in the mix under Marling's hypnotic guitar line and quietly insistent vocals. There's every chance that Laura Marling will get lost in the shuffle as the unexpected commercial success of Feist's The Reminder leads major labels to unleash hordes of similarly talented female singer/songwriters, but Alas I Cannot Swim is far better than the average coffee house-endorsed girly pop.
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AllMusic Review by Stewart Mason