October 24, 2011

Album Review: Florence + The Machine's Ceremonials

The rabid fanbase Florence + The Machine has acquired in the past few years is dizzying considering the music world's revolving door relationship with piano-based songstresses (i.e. Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Regina Spektor and most recently, Adele) who share many of the same qualities as the Welsh-born musician. Her 2009 debut album, Lungs -- while promising and with the exception of Florence Welch's imposing vocals -- lacked a distinguishable identity to it that would set the red-haired siren apart from her contemporaries. It still managed to become an instant success over in her native UK, yet it wasn't until several months later that a full-blitz marketing campaign and spotlight performance for her single "Dog Days" at the 2010 MTV VMAs that Welch became an unavoidable force in pop music, whether it was warranted or not. Florence and her Machine now have our attention, and so it's to be anticipated that her sophomore effort is the kind of big album that strives for both massive commercial success without alienating a more discriminating, curious audience. This album really could have gone either way in terms of quality, but Ceremonials is exactly the LP Welch needed to make in order to silence critics and carve out her own place along the competitive musical landscape.

Ceremonials is a boldly confident, sheen orchestral pop rock affair that can absolutely fill arenas as huge as Welch's gorgeous set of pipes. With many of the best tracks front-loaded at its start, it's difficult not to be convinced from the second you press "play" that Florence + The Machine's sophomore effort will go down as her definitive release thanks to songs like the bombastic opener, "Only If for a Night" followed by the "overcome-all-odds" on favorite for arguably the year's best pop single, "Shake It Out." "What the Water Gave Me" -- alongside "Seven Devils" and the album's expected next single "No Light, No Light" -- demonstrate Welch's flair for the darkly dramatic as she tactfully uses string section upon string section amid a resonating chorus of backup singers to fill any gap not already being preoccupied by her huge voice and accompanying orchestrations. Their haunted wailing like the souls caught in the underworld's limbo is almost metaphorical for Ceremonials' ongoing battle-for-love theme (a tone that is only juxtaposed a few times in the airy Van Dyke Park-esque "Breaking Down" or soulful "Lover to Lover.") Meanwhile, it's easy to imagine the ocean of a love song that is "Never Let Me Go" will inevitably make its rounds backing dozens of homemade YouTube clips chronicling pivotal scenes from Breaking Dawn's relationship saga.

Ceremonials' peaks are indeed tremendous steps in transforming Florence Welch into diva status, but it does not come without some lengthy valleys along the way. The downside to placing all of the album's best music at its start are that the weaker tracks (basically everything past the midway point) are glaring growers which lack instantaneous attachment. At times, it becomes tiring to hear Florence Welch barrel through yet another emotional pick-me-up when you've already had your fill. Despite this arrangement misstep, Florence + The Machine's Ceremonials will likely go down as one of 2011's purist releases by a female pop musician alongside Adele's 21 as neither rely on flavor-of-the-moment stylistic trends to give them an edge. It's an album not without fault, but at least timelessly grand enough for listeners delighted by what they're familiar with, which I guess explains how Florence Welch became such a big deal in the first place.

Florence + The Machine's Ceremonials will be released November 1, 2011 on Universal Republic Records.

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