Inspired by the likes of David Bowie, Wu-Tang Clan, and Serge Gainsbourg, multi-instrumentalist Laura J. Martin, formerly a flutist with hip-hop beatmaker Kidkanevil and owner of a beguiling pixie-like voice that makes Björk sound mundane, isn't exactly typical of her Liverpool hometown's music scene. Released through the Static Caravan Recordings label, renowned for their stable of eccentric indie folk talent, her debut album, The Hangman Tree, is certainly more offbeat than Merseybeat, with its otherworldly melodies and medieval production conjuring up a Tolkien-esque fantasy world that is equally magical and disorienting. Indeed, it takes a while to adjust to the slightly wonky atmosphere created by Martin's childlike tones and array of glockenspiels, woodwinds, and mandolins. But make it past the slightly twee carol-style opening title track, the hyperactive "Fire Horse," and the "Frog Chorus"-feel of "The Lesson," and the album slowly begins to reveal its charms. "Jesse" is an infectious slice of baroque pop underpinned by relentlessly pounding piano chords and military rhythms, the percussive "Spy" is a brilliantly creepy attempt to create a pastiche from espionage film soundtracks of the '60s, and it's difficult not to be enamored by the enchanting lullaby of "Sleepwalker" and the slow-building tango of "Leonine." Disappointing collaborations with Euros Childs (on the meandering acid folk of "Salamander") and alt-rapper Buck 65 (whose swaggering Canadian delivery jars with the noir-ish backdrop of "Kissbye Goodnight") suggest one-woman band Martin is perhaps best left to her own devices, while the two brief instrumentals ("Elsie," "Mr. Lam") bring little to the table. But while The Hangman Tree's left-field approach won't be for everyone, it's hard not to admire its ambition and refreshing sunny disposition.
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