Viewed from a distance, the British-born Laura Marling has always played the same familiar role—a woman with a strong voice and acoustic guitar offering pretty songs about love—yet a closer look reveals that predictability to be an illusion. Her previous two albums cast a harsh eye on romance, often preferring untouchable solitude to contact, and the intriguing Semper Femina finds her shifting gears again. Seeking connection, Marling chronicles fraught female relationships marked by need, affection, flawed communication and, above all, burning intensity. While these thoughtful tunes would have worked fine as solo performances, Marling and producer Blake Mills have varied the mix with all manner of effective sonic touches, including the gorgeous strings of "The Valley" and a hazy down-home vibe on "Wild Fire." Passing the Bechdel test with ease, Semper Femina has as much drama as a great soap opera, but without the dopey clichés.