Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Going her own way: Florence & The Machine's How Big How Blue How Beautiful

One of the undoubted cultural events of 2014 was the surprise re-emergence of Kate Bush for a record-breaking residence at the Hammersmith Odeon, or whatever it is called this week.

The music press, of course, loved the comeback. Those of a certain age (i.e. me) were happy that such a progressive musician had outlived the short-term eruption of punk and was still prepared to do things on her terms, while generating sufficient artistic interest from a new and, notably, younger audience.

No article, however, could advance too many paragraphs without mentioning Florence Welch, she of Florence + The Machine. In the acres of newsprint devoted to the reclusive Bush (oh, how I wish that phrase could be applied to American politics...), it was almost impossible to avoid references to the 28-year-old.

Then again, such has been the dearth of truly interesting female British musical talent over the last thirty years - and not for want of there actually being plenty out there - that such mentions were as predictable as Bush herself being nominated for BRIT awards over successive years without much in the way of albums to show for it.

The comparisons, though, have never borne much validity: there is certainly theatricality about Welch, and, yes, from certain angles she shares a small degree of the apparent eccentricity Bush has woven into the fabric of her career. But it hardly warrants the label 'art rock', that lazy descriptive throwback to the era when journalists simply didn't know how to pigeonhole Bowie and Bolan, Roxy Music, the Floyd, David Byrne, Peter Gabriel and other flagrant contrarians.

On the evidence of Welch's alarmingly comma-free third album How Big How Blue How Beautiful, released this week, there is even less to justify art rock as a tag.

Like its compelling predecessors - 2009's Lungs and 2011's Ceremonials - it possesses plenty of big, ballsy, bombast, thanks to Welch's strident vocals and multi-tracked choruses awash with reverb so cavernous it has hardcore potholing expeditions crawling through it.

But strip away the studio production and focus on the songwriting and you arrive at the revelation that Welch isn't so much channelling Kate Bush as Stevie Nicks and the equally resurgent Fleetwood Mac. Like the Mac, whose strongest second era songs were inspired by the bed-hopping that went on amongst the band itself (and the fallout that resulted), Welch addresses - or at least hints at - some of her own romantic travails. Nowhere is this more than the exceedingly 80s-vintage Nicks/Mac What Kind Of Man ("You do such damage, how do you manage?/To have me crawling back for more").

While How Big How Blue How Beautiful does draw plentifully on the West Coast vibe (the storming opening track Ship To Wreck marries a Go Your Own Way pace to a Johnny Marr jangle, throwing in references to great white sharks and killer whales), the scope is much broader than yet another artist doffing the proverbial to cheesecloth, chambray, denim and the Laurel Canyon scene.

That said, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, the title track (mercifully with punctuation properly installed) is an energetic tribute to Los Angeles, that city much maligned by those who live there, and yet, when you're not tailgating on the Hollywood Freeway, offers so many emphatic vistas. Inspired by a show at the Hollywood Bowl, Welch intertwines imagery of lovers indulging the LA skyline ("Between a crucifix and the Hollywood sign") with an orchestral underscoring that builds to an enormous brass and woodwind crescendo.

Queen of Peace, which follows, reverses the emotional polarity, telling the story of a royal couple dealing with tragedy via a sweeping expanse of torch drama, aided by a killer bass line running right through it. Various Storms & Saints is a further reflection on a failed relationship, building to a subdued chorus of apparent hope - "You'll find a rooftop to sing from/Or find a hallway to dance/You don't need no edge to cling from/Your heart is there, it's in your hands" accompanied by an absolutely gorgeous shimmering guitar. There's a similar vibe to Long & Lost, on which Welch reigns in the vocal volume and applies an Elizabeth Fraser-like vocal over a muted, bluesy guitar and an ambient backdrop.

If Lungs didn't generate attention for Welch six years ago, the breakout single - a simply stunning cover of Candi Staton's You've Got The Love - did. On this new album, Delilah - thankfully not a retread of the swingalong Tom Jones number - goes in the same direction, with a Tamla rhythm giving it an arena-sized bounce.

Caught took a number of listens, and not because of its Adele-meets-Sam Smith-meets-Tammy Wynette cuteness, but because it appeared to have an annoying buzz throughout. Repeated, forensic examination later revealed it to be some sort of keyboard effect, rather than a crap download or, worse, defective listening equipment (i.e. ears), but had the effect of rendering the track the weakest on the record.

By the time you've reached Mother, the final track of the 'regular' release of How Big How Blue How Beautiful (a deluxe edition offers bonus tracks), you suddenly realise how much variety you've actually heard. Producer Markus Dravs has coaxed out of Welch a bigger spectrum than Lungs or Ceremonials. The irony of this is that Mother, the most distinctly different track on the album, was produced by Paul Epworth (McCartney, U2, Adele, Coldplay, myriad other A-listers), and takes Welch into uproarious psych-rock territory, of the "soaring guitars™" kind.

It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it works perfectly for me, conforming to my notion of what a last track should be: an epic, bombastic signature statement that provides satisfying closure. OK, I recognise how much of an old vinyl head's perspective that is, but go with me on this.

Picture: Facebook/Florence + The Machine

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