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HomeMusicReview: Laura J Martin – Prepared

Review: Laura J Martin – Prepared

During the first Covid lockdown, I found myself listening to a short piece by Joanna Brouk called Aurora about three times a day. Brouk’s talent as a composer was immense – she was able to create bright, haunting, deceptively simple melodies and soundscapes from the most minimal ingredients, often just an electronic drone and some woodwind – but despite studying under Terry Riley and creating five of the most distinctive albums of the 1980s she never quite achieved the popularity or critical acclaim of some of her electronic music peers. So, it’s something of a joy to realise that I’m not alone in my appreciation of Brouk’s music. Liverpool songwriter Laura J Martin’s latest album, Prepared, is heavily influenced by Maggi’s Flute, one of Brouk’s most beautiful, nuanced pieces.

Rather than impacting on the album in a concrete way, this influence takes shape in the mood of Prepared’s overall soundworld, in its subtleties and looseness and the way it plays with time. The title track begins with a shimmering drone but soon reconfigures itself with a simple piano figure and some expansive, 80s-inspired synthesised drums. Martin’s vocals are sweet and slightly detached, and the piece sits somewhere between Brouk and the ludic pastoralia of Virginia Astley’s Hope In A Darkened Heart (and, by association, the dreamy electronics of Astley’s producer Ryuichi Sakamoto).

Prepared is Martin’s fourth solo album. The previous one – 2016’s On The Never Never – was a critical success and featured contributions from former Jesus Lizard, Lambchop and Silver Jews members. This time, she has taken a different route. Despite a cast list that includes Lavinia Blackwall on backing vocals, Marco Rea on various guitar-shaped things and Tunng’s Mike Lindsay on electric guitar, her collaborative focus feels narrower, closer. Prepared feels very much like Martin’s personal vision, and perhaps her most important collaborator here is co-producer Iwan Morgan – the Sakamoto to her Astley. Morgan’s most striking contribution comes in the form of Living on the Wall, a surprisingly punchy duet with crisp percussion, flute flourishes, and shades of Colour of Spring era Talk Talk.

Martin credits some of her new sound to her recent training as an apprentice flute maker, a practice that has enabled her to look at detail more closely, to adjust her focus and concentrate in new ways. Prepared has an impressive level of detail – the whole album seems to have been pieced together with minute exactitude and an emphasis on creativity without the pressure of time constraints. The sweet chamber-pop of A Better Story certainly has an unhurried air about it, and Three Days, with its loping bass and interlocking layers of vocals, has a deceptive, pebble-like perfection, simple and smooth from a distance but more intricate the closer you pay attention to it. The ghost of Angelo Badalamenti’s off-kilter soundtracks haunts the woozy instrumentation.

Counting Time is sprightly synth-pop with a hauntological edge and a deliciously disconcerting gap between the fluid melody and the jumpy rhythm, while Outside at Night fuses Japanese-style ambient, new age and pristine new wave pop. The Dials creates a satisfying tension between synthesised and organic sounds, providing the album’s most skittering, impressionistic moments, and its most proggy passages: it sounds like an unlikely meeting of Mark Hollis, Broadcast and Caravan. Magic Mornings relies on a spare piano and a beautiful, airy vocal performance from Martin, intercut with Morgan’s earthier tones.

Prepared ends with its most varied and ambitious track, Open Door, which features crunchy guitars, piano and an orchestral sheen, as well as expressive synths and a memorable, vivid chorus full of unexpected gravitas. It is a song that has the mood of homecoming about it, which is fitting when you consider that Martin recorded this album after moving back from London to her home city of Liverpool. Apparently, the move has done her good: Prepared is her strongest, strangest and most distinctive work yet, and proof that after an eight-year break, good things come to those who wait.

Prepared is out now on Summer Critics (17 May 2024)

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