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Laura Marling

Once I Was An Eagle

[Ribbon]

Four stars

Laura Marling started out singing faux-folk and pop with Mumford and Sons. You shouldn’t hold that against her.

As a solo artist, Marling has been up to something much more interesting than the fake plastic trees planted and cultivated by her former beau, Marcus Mumford. Marling’s roots in English folk music run deep, as does her interest in the open modal tunings favored by folk guitar legends like Bert Jansch and John Martyn. She employs these tunings in service of haunting songs bolstered by stirring melodies, lyrics at turns impressionistic and disarmingly intimate, and a voice that suggests a casual familiarity with whiskey and nicotine.

“Once I Was An Eagle” is easily Marling’s strongest effort. In the gorgeously ruminative, immaculately paced songs, Marling echoes the influence of some of folk music’s most imaginative songwriters and singers, among them Tim Buckley and Joni Mitchell. Don’t let the Mitchell reference fool you, though – Marling has a long way to go if she wants to be comfortable in such lofty company. But to suggest that Marling is attempting to craft her own version of Mitchell’s “Blue” here is not gilding the lily.

The delicate hand percussion, subtle bass figures and supple cello lines ably serve Marling’s intricate acoustic guitar work, whether during the Led Zeppelin “Friends”-like “I Was An Eagle,” with its thrilling light/shade dynamics, or the beautifully creepy modal crawl that is “Devil’s Resting Place,” with its vaguely Eastern overtones. Producer Ethan Johns does right by Marling with his all but transparent production. Johns recognizes the power in Marling’s writing and in her delivery, which sounds like it was largely captured in real time here, perhaps even in single unedited takes.

With “Once I Was An Eagle,” Marling has crafted her first unfettered masterpiece. I’ve a strong suspicion it will not be her last.

– Jeff Miers

Jazz

Youn Sun Nah

Lento

[ACT]

Four stars

She’s Korean, lives in Paris and, to many ears, may be the most extraordinary jazz singer to come along in an era that is, quite frankly, overloaded with mediocrities in a massive marketing wave occasioned by the popularity of their betters who are some of the most successful singers we have. (Diana Krall, Michael Bublé, Norah Jones, all of whom are more generically “jazz” than anything else and all of whom are rather good in different ways.)

Youn Sun Nah is more interesting than all of them put together. And yes she is doing a short American tour. But the tragedy of jazz in Buffalo is that she won’t be performing here but rather June 28 at the Rochester Jazz Festival.

As extraordinary as her first two ACT discs were – “Voyage” and “Same Girl” – “Lento” is the disc that fully gives you a sense of how unprecedented her talent truly is. The title tune (which means, of course, “slow”) begins the disc with the singer’s adaptation of one of Scriabin’s Chopinesque piano pieces. Before it’s over, we’ve had Korean folk songs, originals by the singer (as well as her guitarist Ulf Wakenius) and two unexpected vocal masterpieces of the most surprising provenance: her version of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” and the great old 1940s and ’50s hit by Vaughan Monroe and Frankie Laine, “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”

It was Johnny Cash who gave “Hurt” a miraculous second life as one of the most powerful and lacerating confessional songs of our era. Youn Sun Nah gives it another stark emotional color completely – not the despair of Cash’s old age or the carelessness of a lonely rock road warrior, but a young woman with a hauntingly beautiful voice who chose badly.

And then there’s that inspirationally cockamamie version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” where the singer tears her voice apart in life warning in a way that would have scared the bejabbers out of Kurt Weill (let’s not even talk about Monroe and Laine).

When she’s at her best, there’s no other singer on the jazz landscape who can shock you the way Youn Sun Nah can.

An extraordinary young artist.

– Jeff Simon

Broadway

Audra McDonald

Go Back Home

[Nonesuch]

Three and a half stars

Audra McDonald has a voice custom-built for Broadway, and it gets to range across 12 lush and lovely tracks on “Go Back Home,” the four-time Tony winner’s full-throated tribute to her beloved art form.

McDonald, a student of Stephen Sondheim and Sarah Vaughan in equal measure, took a four-year hiatus from Broadway to work on ABC’s “Private Practice” before returning to star in the 2012 revival of “Porgy and Bess.” (The touring version of the show, minus McDonald, will come to Shea’s Performing Arts Center next spring.)

This record, which includes classics from Comden and Green (“Make Someone Happy”) and Rodgers and Hammerstein (“Edelweiss”) alongside fresh songs from Western New York’s Michael John LaChiusa (“Virtue,” “Married Love”) seems to contain all her pent-up longing for the stage and for the outsize emotions it allows. She’s broken free from stifling constraints of the television screen, a medium ill-suited for Broadway-sized emotions, and made a glorious return to the borderless stage.

It begins, as many of McDonald’s favorite songs often begin, in quiet fashion. John Kander and Fred Ebb’s pearl of a tune “Go Back Home,” from the remarkable 2010 musical “The Scottsboro Boys.” Before long, though, the soft strings and softer yearning of the song gives way to blaring brass and a bright voice that blares above it all.

That’s the way it goes on most of the rest of the record. McDonald has wisely chosen songs that show off her dynamic and emotional range. She comes in pianissimo on Adam Guettel’s strange reverie “Migratory V,” but before its four minutes are up, we’ve heard the full range of octaves and an affecting story to boot.

Amid all the big feelings and swelling strings, she’s also magnificently funny on Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler’s tune “Baltimore,” a little masterpiece of comic songwriting that had me laughing out loud and hitting repeat.

Colin Dabkowski

POP

Portugal, The Man

Evil Friends

[atlantic]

Three stars

The Portland indie-rock outfit teams with producer Danger Mouse for “Evil Friends,” the John Gourley-led band’s seventh album, and easily its most consistently excellent one. Danger Mouse – aka Brian Burton – is partly responsible for the album’s success, his warm, adventurous and sonically crunchy production aesthetic ably serving Gourley’s searing falsetto and the band’s orchestral pop/indie-rock hybrid. But it’s the songwriting that makes “Friends” such a psychedelic delight. The unexpected twists and turns, stylistic leaps and unfettered giddiness in the writing and performance add up to something incredibly rare – a strain of pop music refreshingly free of cliché. (The band plays at 8 p.m. Wednesday in the Town Ballroom.)

– J.M.