Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Florence And The Machine - Ceremonials [album review]

Released in November 2011 (part of an ongoing series of reviews covering older releases from the past year that "fell through the cracks")
Rolling Stone magazine recently called Florence Welch, Florence And The Machine's lead singer, "the Stevie Nicks of the Twilight generation". The London-based musician's witchy woman fashion sense definitely takes cues from Nicks, but her weird, goth-pop music owes more of a debt to Kate Bush, Siouxsie And The Banshees, and Tori Amos. If none of the aforementioned artists are your cup of tea, then note that I only appreciate a handful of Nicks songs, enjoyed Amos for a couple of albums back in the 90s, and have never remotely liked Bush or Siouxsie And The Banshees...and yet I've found Ceremonials to be an outstanding collection of songs that I keep returning to.
Ceremonials contains twelve songs on the regular album and the deluxe version includes three additional new tracks - most impressively, all but one of those is downright excellent (the deluxe version also has five more acoustic and demo versions of various album tracks). Welch's voice is an enchantingly odd combination of soaring power that occasionally also hits some slightly flat spots, but it's all just part of the quirky, unpredictable nature of her art. Her musical backing is an album production geek's wet dream, as there are a wealth of instrumental and vocal layers presented throughout the recording. Ceremonials whips up a highly atmospheric soundscape that places much more emphasis on instruments like harps, bells and chimes, keyboards, and elements like orchestral grandness and heavily layered vocals, than guitars. Combined with Welch's darkly spiritual lyrics, all of this might sound like a New Age musical recipe you'd want no part of - know that it is not (also note that I'm no fan of Yanni, John Tesh, or Enya). A couple of weeks ago, Welch released her third album, MTV Unplugged - A Live Album. Aside from reminding me that you know you're way behind on your reviews when artists are already releasing bloody follow-ups to the previous album you haven't gotten around to writing about yet, it made me appreciate Ceremonials even more. The live release is good and all (a well-written song usually translates regardless of how it's presented), but the stripped down Unplugged format really diminishes the grandiose scope of the material drawn from Ceremonials and Welch's debut Lungs album.
Based on the artfully ambitious, engagingly eccentric, intelligent, and soulful qualities demonstrated on Ceremonials, as well as being a confident and visually dynamic live act, Florence Welch is one of the few new artists that an old fart like me thinks bears watching.
Best tracks: Take your pick, because there's plenty to choose from. The gorgeous water-themed ballad "Never Let Me Go" is arguably the album's high point; "Shake It Out", "Breaking Down", "All This And Heaven Too", and "Lover To Lover" are Ceremonial's poppiest songs; for something a little more haunting and epic there's "Only If For The Night", deluxe edition track "Strangeness And Charm", plus the percussion-heavy "No Light, No Light", "Heartlines", and "Spectrum".
Weakest tracks: Only the plodding and dirgelike "Seven Devils" really warrants a track skip.
Rating: A