While I rarely venture into contemporary pop music I must make an exception for Florence and The Machine. This British band was first brought to my attention by my wife, who is a great admirer of the group and especially of lead singer Florence Welch. Though I normally try to limit myself to instrumental music, due to the fact that “anything too stupid to be said is sung” (thank you Voltaire!) I could not refuse my wife’s invitation to check out their recent hit single What the Water Gave Me (especially after torturing her with Marc Ribot’s Rootless Cosmopolitans – an acquired taste she unfortunately never really acquired).
Perhaps if I had listened to the song on the radio or would have just been exposed to the studio version I might have merely enjoyed it, but my wife was smart enough to play me the live version from Later with Jools Holland http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czhA9ow0ZFE so as a result I was absolutely enchanted. The song is creepy enough to warrant attention by itself but it’s the charming voice and powerful stage presence of Florence Welch that jumps out at the first time listener and offers a take on “pop music” that to me personally feels fresh and exciting.
At the very least What the Water Gave Me is a song that an intelligent and experienced listener can feel very comfortable with and also has the quality of engaging a younger and perhaps less patient audience (Try playing David Darling’s compositions for cello on the radio at 15:23 PM and just listen for the sound of people switching channels).
So I decided to further pursue the band and naturally started with their debut album Lungs. The music of Florence + The Machine started with the friendship and collaboration of Florence Welch, the vocalist, and Isabella Summers, the band`s keyboard player, percussionist, producer, DJ and all-around Jill-of-all-trades and, in time, has added a few more members, namely: guitar player Robert Ackroyd, harpist(!) Tom Monger, bass player Mark Saunders and stand-out drummer Christopher Lloyd Hayden (keep an eye out for this guy!) but one immediately sees that the band is built as a vehicle for the voice and talent of Florence Welch whose intense and sensual presence dominates the record and whose powerful stage persona and at the same time delicate demeanor is the driving creative force behind the band and distinguishes it from other pop/rock acts building for it a fan-base that is immensely, almost fanatically dedicated.
Of course, the lead singer is almost always the face and “personality” of the band but Florence brings to that role an earnestness and raw emotion that is refreshing for a pop scene that usually has bands either stay conservatively within certain well-defined bounds or completely stray away from the beaten path for the love of being “different” – to the point where this leads the most unfortunate results, all in hope of catering to the lowest common denominator.
Florence offers the listener a sound with a distinct and honest identity, her love for aesthetic maximalism shines through but never so much as to turn her efforts into a gimmick (though the harp is right on the brink of that sometimes, only inches away from being overused)
The harp is actually the first thing the listener gets to hear when playing Lungs, the instrument opens the very intelligently placed first track Dog Days Are Over, probably the closest one to becoming an anthem for the band (thanks for this insight go out to my wife Ioana) Dog Days is very representative of what one can expect from this album and a very charming and inviting opening track (Happiness hit her/like a bullet in the back).
Florence, at certain times sings, other times she yells in a voice that is at the same time very complex but also refreshingly un-polished. Light-years away from a clean-cut Celine Dion or Mariah Carey, Florence offers a voice that adapts to the momentary need of the song. She will sing, she will coo, she`ll whisper and sigh and, if “necessary” flat-out scream from the top of her lungs (hello Tom Waits!). To me, the effect of this is that, as a listener, you don`t get to become bored with her voice and it never gets irritating (kudos to Florence for that one).
Rabbit Heart (Raise it Up) follows Dog Days and continues in the same manner while adding to that the first taste of typical Florence symbolism (enter: king Midas) but the record`s excellent start hits a bit of a bump with I`m not calling you a liar a tune which, in spite of not being bad, and with some interesting lyrics, fails to live up to the albums powerful beginning. This in fact seems like a pattern on the record, with very complex and well-developed songs at times interrupted by underwhelming and sometimes flat-out disappointing ones (I`m looking at you Hurricane Drunk). Luckily, the former greatly outnumber the latter and, as a whole, the album offers many excellent compositions and this from a generous thirteen tracks. Yet, I couldn`t help wondering how tracks like Hurricane Drunk and Girl With One Eye (not necessarily a weak song but terribly misplaced on this record) ever made it past bonus tracks. Luckily, there`s plenty of excellent ones to choose from as the album continues with Howl (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0SLoOzTMjC8) a very catchy tune with interesting lyrics (a werewolf analogy of all things) which one wouldn`t be surprised to even hear at a club somewhere. In fact, if clubs were playing more songs like this I think I`d start getting out more. I mentioned before that I try to steer clear of non-instrumental music most of the time because of the often ridiculous lyrics, and one could easily imagine how comparing an obsessive, overbearing lover to a werewolf could have easily fallen in that category in the hands of a lesser writer but here`s what Florence does with it:
If you could only see the beast you’ve made of me
I held it in but now it seems you’ve set it running free
Screaming in the dark, I howl when we’re apart
Drag my teeth across your chest to taste your beating heart
If you could only see the beast you’ve made of me
I held it in but now it seems you’ve set it running free
The saints can’t help me now, the ropes have been unbound
I hunt for you with bloody feet across the hallowed ground
My fingers claw your skin, try to tear my way in
You are the moon that breaks the night for which I have to howl
And here`s my favorite:
Be careful of the curse that falls on young lovers
It starts so soft and sweet and turns them to hunters
This is without a doubt a young girl’s song and yet it is delivered in a way that makes it enjoyable even for someone outside its “target” audience and I bet most people could relate to obsession in one form or another. This seems to be the fortunate case for most of Florences’ compositions as her carefully studied lyrics prevents any listener from feeling too distant from a certain song or too awkward in relating to the lyrics (I remember my wife listening to Katie Melua a while back). The theme continues with Kiss with a fist, a sexy, playful and fast tune, an instant charmer not to be taken literally (I broke your jaw once before/ I spilled your blood upon the floor/ You broke my leg in return/ So let`s sit back and watch the bed burn/Love sticks, Sweat drips/ Break the lock if it don’t fit/ A kick in the teeth is good for some/ A kiss with a fist is better than none/(…)You hit me once I hit you back/You gave a kick I gave a slap /You smashed a plate over my head/ Then I set fire to our bed). If not interrupted by the strangely misplaced Girl with One Eye the album would have continued directly with another instant charmer namely Drumming Song, a track that delivers just what it promises and every time you get to see it live you get to fully enjoy the talent of Chris Haydn, who, aside from Florence herself, I think gets to shine most on the record. In fact, I feel like his drums and her voice complement each other brilliantly on the album with the drums being the one instrument which, even when standing out, does not compete with the singers voice (think We Will Rock You). And Haydn delivers every single time, so I was very disappointed to see many live shows where Flo`s penchant for complex performances (orchestra and choir and fancy outfits) often leaves out Haydn`s drums.
Between two lungs follows and is a lighter tune and perfect setup for the album`s absolute highlight Cosmic Love (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EIeUlvHAiM) This more mature song is, in a way, a preview for the band`s next album Ceremonials a collection that, although more complex and “grown-up”, also lacks a bit some of the freshness and vigor of Lungs. If I were to recommend just one song off this album though, especially as an introduction to Florence and The Machine and their music it would most certainly be Cosmic Love. The song is a perfect blend of everything this band stands for, from the lead singers powerful voice and stage presence, to Haydn and his perfectly executed drums (watch out for the “beating heart” when Florence says I heard your heart beating/you were in the darkness too) and the spice that is Mongers harp in just the right amount to add flavor without distracting from the track as a whole. Cosmic Love is an excellent track on an album that is already very good (perhaps just some uninspired song placement away from being great) but certainly, as a debut album, Florence Welch and her band have every reason to be proud. From Cosmic Love onwards the record loses steam with My Boy Builds Coffins, Hurricane Drunk and Blinding Light only to end on somewhat higher (if a bit stranger note) with their take on You`ve Got The Love, the 1986 ode to the Savior by The Source and Candi Staton, perfectly covered by Florence but with an odd placing as the closing track, leaving the listener wondering “oh Lord, what`s the use”. Perhaps the track would have been better suited for Ceremonials and I`m sure Lungs as a whole would have been much more powerful had it ended with Cosmic Love which could have also been a better predecessor to Ceremonials and its opening track Only if for a Night. As a whole, Lungs is highly recommended, it comes as a breath of fresh air to the musical “genre” that needs it most nowadays. Florence Welch and her Machine have managed to create a recording with a distinct personality that comes off as honest and passionate and luckily, not heavily influenced by the sometimes dubious choices in music (see Rihanna, Lady Ga-Ga, Beyonce, Dizzy Rascal) of the easily star-struck Florence.
In closing, I say give this band a try, the music has lots of energy, Florence is smart(!) and charismatic and the Machine will not disappoint.
Best track: Cosmic Love (though it`s hard to chose from the many great songs)
Watch out for: The lovely Florence Welch and drummer Chris Hayden