Sunday, November 27, 2011

Album Review: Florence and the Machine - Ceremonials (4/5)

Florence Welch nicely sidesteps the sophomore slump on Ceremonials, her well-wrought if it at times overwrought sequel to her 2009 debut, Lungs that positions the singer as a powerful, more distinctive voice in pop music. Lungs was a good start, but I found it hard to slog through, a problem I don't experience with Ceremonials, which features overall better songwriting and musical diversity. Welch is still delivering a big, massive, pillar-shaking sound with her voice so strong (and well mixed) to always rise above the layers of strings, harps, organs and outsize drums.

Somber "Only If for a Night" opens the album on a strong note and then kicks it up a notch with "Shake It Out," the delightfully upbeat single that keeps growing on me. It opens with just vocal and organ and then grows from there with an uplifting lyric about picking yourself up and moving on ("It's always darkest before the dawn"). Promotional teaser "What the Water Gave Me" contrasts nicely, with a moody, understated sound with occasional bursts of guitar, harp and choir. The only metaphor big enough to match Florence's sound is the landscape itself, so it's no surprise she fills "Never Let Me Go" with imagery of being carried out to a turbulent sea.

"Breaking Down" sounds like Arcade Fire making a really great pop song. It's prominent strings carry the melody forcefully. "Lover to Lover" finds Welch in an Adele-like soulful mood, adding some '60s-style piano to the mix. "No Light, No Light," recently announced as the next single, is another highlight, alternating tender verses with forceful choruses. "Spectrum" is a particularly fiery track, with Welch's command to "Say my name" feeling like something one would be rather foolish to not comply with. Second-to-last track "All This and Heaven too" may sound like a lot to promise, but you almost believe they can deliver it with their sheer force of will (and thankfully, this is one of the album's calmer tracks, giving a needed rest toward the end). It would have made a fine closing track, making "Leave My Body" feel unneeded, but not necessarily unwelcome.

When reviewing Lungs, I said Florence Welch reminded me other quirky pop singers of the day--voices like Feist and Bat for Lashes. On Ceremonials, she and her band make a stronger case for themselves as a distinctive force on the pop music landscape, a landscape they fully inhabit with their larger-than-life sound.

Best: Shake It Out, Breaking Down, Only If for a Night, No Light No Light, What the Water Gave Me, Spectrum

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