For a young person fresh out of school and craving energy-channeling structure and tradition, there are many options: Join the Army; get a grad degree in something useless; try a career in folk music. Laura Marling and Johnny Flynn are two wide-eyed English singer-songwriters who chose the latter. During a two-night stand at the Hotel Café over the weekend, they each updated the UK tradition of the pastoral balladeer by pairing involved acoustic arrangements with the self-awareness characteristic of their Twittering mates.
Their Saturday night sets opened with an impressive turn by the London quartet Mumford & Sons, who evoked the swooning harmonies of CSNY with the dreamy pluck of the Incredible String Band and Mumford's contemporaries Fleet Foxes.
Flynn's more mannered, boy-next-door approach to writing and scoring initially seemed a bit antiquated and polite by comparison. But once he and his backing band settled into his thickets of sentences and quiver of instruments (guitar, banjo, trumpet, fiddle), Flynn drew ready comparisons to such precociously adept peers as Patrick Wolf and Beirut's Zach Condon.
Flynn's songs are deeply invested in traditional folk imagery, all rife with religious doubt, Hoagy Carmichael allusions and domestic ritual (he has a whole tune about cooking leftover bacon and sardines). But in a few moments, in songs such as "Brown Trout Blues," he gives away his age and insecurities, admitting, "Sometimes I find it hard to be a man / It's easier just to play the same old game / Of trying to forget my bloody name." Be it through boozy benders or an identity crisis, the results are an apt portrait of a youth navigating and avoiding the expectations placed on him.
The 18-year-old Marling, on the contrary, had such startlingly articulate insights into love and loss that one pities the scads of loutish teenage boys back in her native Eversley who surely tried and failed to stir her heart. She was a spectral presence onstage, but her songs were anything but wispy. "My Manic and I" is a claustrophobic scene of love amid mental illness that somehow manages to be both ravenously adolescent and coolly diagnostic: "He wants to die where nobody can see him / but the beauty of his death will carry on so / I don't believe him."
Marling's not the player Flynn is (few folks are), but she has a deft way around deceptively simple-sounding fingerpicking patterns that suggests plenty of nights mooning over her Bonnie "Prince" Billy vinyls. But it's Marling's implacable way of embodying the English-rose stereotype while completely undermining it with steely savvy that makes her such a potent singer.
"There's 14 of us traveling together, and I'm the only girl. Brilliant," she cracked between songs, to knowing laughs from her tour mates. One suspects those fellows are on their best behavior in the van, lest they earn a truly merciless song on her second album.