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Laura Marling, the Invisible Hands, Marshall Chapman 

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click to enlarge Laura Marlin's new album, Once I Was an Eagle

Laura Marling

Once I Was an Eagle

Ribbon Music

File next to: Sharon Van Etten, Joni Mitchell,Nina Simone

Amazon calls Laura Marling's new album "wildly ambitious," which is almost a given. The precocious 23-year-old's three previous albums were astonishing in their own right, but Once I Was an Eagle is a new breed of ambitious. Where her previous works were direct, staccato and minimalist, the arrangements by Ethan Johns here are lush, but tribal. Marling's voice, as well as her lyrics, bring to mind Joni Mitchell channeling Nina Simone, with ample whiskey getting in the way. The first half-dozen songs are intertwined in continuous song-cycle in the style of Kate Bush, until finally giving way to traditional songs like "Pray for Me" and "Little Bird." This is the kind of magnum opus most songwriters are lucky to deliver in their 30s or 40s. Once I Was an Eagle is a strong, perhaps unbeatable, contender for album of the year. — Loring Wirbel

click to enlarge The Invisible Hands, the new album by the band of the same name.

The Invisible Hands

The Invisible Hands

Abduction Records

File next to: Sun City Girls, Cheb Bilal, Cairokee

When Sun City Girls' 30-year weird-jazz career ended with the death of drummer Charles Gocher, guitarist Sir Richard Bishop went on to rack up the most jam sessions while brother Alan (aka Alvarius B) released more occasional works. Now, the latter has teamed up with a cadre of Egyptian musicians in the Cairo-based Invisible Hands. An English-language CD is sold here in the States, the Arabic version is sold in Egypt, and a vinyl double-LP combines both. While Alan handles the English vocals well, the duo of Cherif El Masri and Aya Hemeda is downright magical. Folk, jazz and traditionalist strains are combined with searing guitar, and by the time the album concludes with "Death Zoo," the sounds resemble King Crimson's Red. This band debut is neither Sun City Girls weirdness nor Arabic souk or rai, but a blistering work of Middle East rock. — Loring Wirbel

click to enlarge Marshall Chapman's new album, Blaze of Glory.

Marshall Chapman

Blaze of Glory

Tallgirl Records

File next to: Billy Joe Shaver, the Highwaymen

Blaze of Glory is another rootsy gem from Marshall Chapman. After opening with "Love in the Wind," which rides a Bo Diddley beat with Todd Snider singing along, Chapman and her fine band perfectly negotiate the snaky blues-rock of "I Don't Want Nobody," chug through "Let's Make Waves," and gear down for the dark, Marianne Faithful-like "Dreams & Memories." The songs are smart and catchy, none more so than the tropically tinged "Call the Lamas." And the two covers here are keepers as well — Hoagy Carmichael's "Nearness of You" and the Delmore Brothers' "Blues Stay Away From Me." The album comes to a satisfying close with the cool, vibes-filled title cut, an autobiographical reflection that progresses from seeing Elvis sing in 1956, through "playing rock 'n' roll music with my hair on fire," to watching the sun rise each new morning. — L. Kent Wolgamott

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