[4 October 2011]
At 16, Alessi Laurent-Marke left school in London to pursue a career in music and made a fateful promise to her parents – if she hadn’t found success within a year, she would admit defeat and return to education. At 17, her intense gigging and self-promotion had paid off, with her acoustic guitar playing and disarmingly breathy voice attracting attention to her gentle folk. Signed to a major, she was flown out to Omaha, Nebraska, and recorded a well-received debut with her dream producer, Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes. There are worse ways to start out.
We find Alessi’s Ark further down the road now, a little wiser and more experienced. Yes, Laurent-Marke still has her wistful acoustic tunes and youthful charm – she is still only 21 – but the release of Time Travel represents a slight change of attitude and priorities. In contrast to the fairytale major label sweep of first album Notes from the Treehouse, this second effort is released on the small-but-successful indie label Bella Union. Announced last year and christened with the Soul Proprietor EP, this shift is a wise move because it better reflects not only Laurent-Marke’s tender folk sound but also her musical aspirations; Time Travel is a cautious step forward in a singer-songwriter’s development, not a world-conquering comeback.
True to this, Laurent-Marke’s working is clearly visible in the margins of many of these songs. Shaky opener “Kind of Man” sees the singer venture into folk-country, but sounds more like a sketchy proof of concept than a fully-fledged tune. A cover of Lesley Gore’s 1964 teen pop hit “Maybe I Know” is further evidence of Laurent-Marke’s remaining naivety, its schoolyard lyrics clashing awkwardly with her otherwise growing maturity. Later comes “The Robot”, a similarly pretty but somewhat cloying example of the now familiar man/machine comparison love song which hardly breaks the mould.
Elsewhere there are hints, however, of the heights that Laurent-Marke has every right and reason to aspire to. “On the Plains” is the strongest track here, a showcase for her flair for vocal melody and a careful merger between some mild rock elements on the one hand and dainty flute work on the other. Another highlight is delicate instrumental “The Fever”, which provides a mid-album interlude demonstrating growing compositional skills and even recalls “After the Ordeal”, which used acoustics and piano just as serenely and served Genesis well in 1973.
As it transpires, Time Travel is an appropriate title for a record which sees Laurent-Marke still tied to her naïve and inexperienced beginnings but at the same time looking forward to having ever more control over her significant talents. If the songs often veer more to the former than to the latter, it is largely a reflection of the lessons Alessi’s Ark has yet to learn. While they are clearly the work of a developing artist, these precocious but consistently pleasant songs are also a testament to her natural talent and hard graft. This second album is no magnum opus, but it leaves Laurent-Marke plenty of time to create one.