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Music: Laura Marling i speak because i can (EMI) * * * *

Laura Marling's remarkable voice is hugely expressive and reassuring as she confides in you among the warm acoustics, says Eamon Carr

A few years ago, I was telling anyone who'd listen about exciting developments on a scene in Britain that was being dubbed nu-folk. There were many stylistic strands to this emerging talent bank. From The Unthanks in Northumberland to the riotous Bellowhead and Jim Moray's glam-prog-folk, there was much to discover. Clearly, we'd come a long way from hey-nonny-no, chest- warming beards and hankie dancers.

In a pub in Chelsea, another bunch of flibbertigibbets were honing their skills. The signs were encouraging. And today, the ship they so diligently launched has sailed into the public consciousness.

Mumford & Sons' debut album Sigh No More is currently at number seven in the charts. Noah & the Whale's The First Days of Spring also charted, as did their debut Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down.

Laura Marling sang on Noah's first album. But not the second, which featured no female voices. That's understandable, because all of the songs chronicle Charlie Fink's struggle to get over having been dumped by his then girlfriend Ms Marling, whose debut album he had produced.

That album, Alas, I Cannot Swim, attracted attention. Written when she was 17, it marked Marling out as a fine lyricist and one to watch.

She's 20 now, but many of the songs on I Speak Because I Can have a timeless quality that suggests Marling's muse is older than the hills.

She's done her homework. And with vogue producer Ethan Johns (Kings of Leon, Ryan Adams, etc) in tow, she's made the grown-up album that places her firmly in a league alongside Joni Mitchell, Suzanne Vega and any number of literate heavyweights.

Her friends help out too. A bunch of the Mumfords and Tom 'Fiddle' Hobden from Noah & the Whale embroider her songs with a big, fat, warm acoustic sound that is never less than perfect.

One of the most remarkable features of this album is Marling's voice. What a marvellous instrument, expressive and reassuring, it has become. When she sings, "But I'm broke in two and spoken for. Please do not tempt me ... " (What He Wrote), you are convinced you're the only person in the world she's confiding in. Even allowing for the delicate finger-picked guitar and hushed intimacy, Marling still manages to gild the melody with neat vocal curlicues and passionate revelations. "I miss his smell," she confides with poignant resignation.

It's not all tear-stained bedsit love letters. The album opens with a clattering Devil's Spoke, which suggests Marling, like thousands before her, has absorbed the urgency of young Dylan. But few harness unfettered enthusiasm with the sureness of touch displayed here.

"All this can be broken," she warns, as a buzzing acoustic storm is conjured up by the Mumford men. "Hold the devil by his spoke and spin him to the ground."

There's a neat tuning thing going on throughout this set, and the vague Middle Eastern vibe that graces songs such as Alpha Shallows contributes a further layer of mystery and magical intrigue to Marling's off-kilter narratives. Nor is she afraid to deliver a song with just her guitar. Made By Maid tells a tale of finding "a babe a-top a log" who goes on to blame her for all his mistakes. "Forgive me, I am only a maid," pleads Marling in a curious reinvention of something that might have been exhumed from the vaults of folk repository Cecil Sharp House.

The man who "spoke on Judgement Day" (from the Brecht and Weill-style Hope in the Air) may or may not be Fink. "No part of me wants everybody to know what's going on," she says.

We'll enjoy searching for clues on this accomplished collection. HHHHI