Marina Allen – Eight Pointed Star

A truly magical record...

Suppose you try to roughly estimate the current popularity of folk music over the last three decades. In that case, it quickly becomes evident that the total number of records in this genre released yearly has increased over time. For example, AOTY lists of album releases show that from 1993 to 2023, their amount increased at least fourfold, from about 18 to 73 LPs per year.

It’s safe to say that, in general, the number of musicians delivering acoustic ballads with twang, pedal steel, and slide guitar, as well as their audience, continues to grow through the passage of time. Yet, this number will increase by several orders of magnitude if we focus on the broader niche of young singer-songwriters who perform in related genres, ranging from folktronica and indie folk to chamber pop and art pop, like Jess WilliamsonKaty J PearsonBess AtwellKevin MorbyWeyes Blood, and Alex G.

Every year, it becomes more and more challenging to stand out against such a rich and flourishing background. Only on the day of Marina Allen’s third album release alone, there are a bunch of folky records, including those by Liz LawrenceWay DynamicRose HotelFrankie Bird, and other contemporaries. However, her poetic, ironic, dry wit, and easy-going approach are perfectly evident at first glance. Just look at the cover of ‘Eight Pointed Star’ where she steps with one foot on a piano… whose gentle chords open the album.

“All this time mining out my own way”, sings Allen in the piano-driven opener ‘I’m The Same’, emphasising the above thoughts. This echoes with another piano ballad, ‘Red Cloud’, channeling the likes of Julie Byrne or Dan Bejar’s hypnagogic existentialism. But these are just a prelude to more sophisticated and glass-fragile cuts like the tender and vulnerable ‘Bad Eye Opal’ or the intimate and introspective ‘Easy’, dipped in a slight country twang flowing into almost krautrock-ish hypnotic rhythms with a touch of The War On Drugs-like reverbs.

Across nine tracks and 30 minutes, Allen smartly slides between a ballad-esque repertoire with bursts of Joanna Newsom-inspired elfin vocal delivery and guitar-laden cuts like ‘Swinging Doors’ and ‘Love Comes Back’, whose bright and buoyant mood places them somewhere between boygenius and Courtney Barnett. Meanwhile, the real outlier on the record is ‘Deep Fake’, a melancholic daydream filled with witty, quotation-ready expressions that have great potential for memes to come.

Speaking of post-post and meta-meta epoch, what does the aforementioned spread of the so-called newest folk tell us? Maybe that music listeners of the internet era are bored of straight pop. Or that they have become more sophisticated, sensitive, and highbrow-ish. Or that the new generation of singer-songwriters has more disappointments and traumas to sing about. “I am tainted, I am taught, to be tough, to be raw, to be ruined, to be wrecked”, Allen winks in ‘Red Cloud’, immediately offering a solution in ‘Easy’: “Easy, Easy / Make some dinner, watch some TV”.

Most of the time, the narrative of ‘Eight Pointed Star’ is hard to tackle, like, say, Lindsay/Weir’s ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’. Of course, there are as many as eight points there! It’s filled with canyons, the Great Plain, Red Cloud, painted horses, coyotes, and other signs of American music and Allen’s grandmother’s lore from life in Nebraska. Her Emily Dickinson-worthy enigmatic songcraft is too fluid and cryptic to be considered typical diaristic songwriting or Swiftian-like mythmaking, ready to be dissected on Reddit and Genius.

“And I think that’s what folk music is: Storytelling and cherry-picking, exaggerating some parts and leaving some parts out, based on whoever’s telling it”, she says with a total understanding of the matter. Still, it’s only halfway through the year, but we already have a vast palette of releases from folk goliaths and darlings like Jessica PrattBeth Gibbons, Lizzy McAlpineMadi DiazWaxahatcheeMaggie RogersFaye WebsterMarika Hackman, and many others. They know perfectly how to “care about the pen”, weaving first-rate storytelling.

Marina Allen also knows how to elegantly squeeze a few vivid words into the incessant dialogue of genre heavyweights, which makes her not just one of many on the motley tapestry of folk music but one of the most promising.

9/10

Words: Igor Bannikov

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