Thursday, November 3, 2011

Album Review: Ceremonials by Florence + The Machine

Read more reviews and music articles on my Arts page.
The hype machine was in high gear for this album: ads, articles, social media. I couldn’t visit more than ten webpages without seeing something about it. So I figured I’d better find out what the fuss is all about. But having listened five times now, I’m afraid I don’t quite get it: it’s not the Second Coming, just good and very dramatic with a baroque pop/wall-of-sound approach and curious instrumentation (the harp adds great flavor on certain tracks). Florence Welch has a strong, interesting voice, even if she uses it in sometimes predictable ways. (The first time I heard “Lover to Lover,” otherwise a highlight of the album, I knew in advance she was going to jump her voice an octave on the third repeat of “That’s alright.”)

But everything about this release screams “This is a Serious Work of Art.” Just look at the album art, which features many photos of a mostly unsmiling Florence in different outfits outside or inside a mansion, each with a handwritten lyrical snippet. It’s got a liner note from British journalist and novelist Emma Forrest that references Poe’s “The Raven.” Seriously.

And the lyrics don’t lighten the load. “What the Water Gave Me” goes all Virginia Wolff with someone lying in water with stones in her pockets, not to mention a reference to Greek myth. It’s not the only song to mention drowning. Add to that ghosts and ghouls, mental breakdown, and a lot of bad dreams.

One exception is “Spectrum,” one of my favorite songs on the album, with its “upbeat” chorus of “Say my name and every color illuminates, we are shining and we will never be afraid again.” This song also features one of the best musical aspects of this album, galloping percussion that accelerates the music to just the right point before dropping for a quiet harp section.

“Serious” is not necessarily bad – and I definitively have a thing for dramatic, over-the-top, intense music. On this album, however, it becomes rather oppressive. Every song is so intense, particularly because of her consistently passionate delivery and the orchestral scope of the music. (I suspect that the same intensity that bogs down this studio album would make this an amazing live band.) I couldn’t help but think of Ed Kowalczyk from the band Live. Totally different music but the same “leave nothing on the table” approach – and why I could never listen to Throwing Copper regularly: it tired me out!

The songs I like the most are those with a strong gospel flavor, like “Never Let Me Go” and “Leave My Body.” Something about the soaring background response vocals lightens the feel and gives the songs a hip sway the more orchestral tracks lack. “All This and Heaven, Too” has a similar feel, the quality of the melody, especially on the chorus, and the lush backing lifting the song.

When they tone it down, such as on “Remain Nameless,” the results are often strong. This song has an eerie, spare feel (it’s not that spare except in comparison to the rest of the record). If I were their producer, I’d have dropped the “everything but the kitchen sink” approach on a few other tracks as well to reduce the overall intensity. Another good example is “Strangeness and Charm,” which is well balanced between a quieter verse and intense chorus, with the harp providing atmospherics.

My verdict? A collection of good songs, but too much all together. It’s one of those rare albums I know I won’t listen to completely. (This is a big deal for a guy who, despite the digital revolution, still considers himself an “album guy.”) It’s too much. Taken as a few individual tracks, it’s great, but more than that and it tires me out. I’d like to write more, but I’m feeling a little sleepy all of a sudden…

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