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Disc of the Week: For Florence, bigger isn't always better

Florence and the Machine perform at Toronto's Mod Club, Nov. 2, 2009.

Della Rollins/della rollins The Globe and Mail


  • Florence + the Machine
  • Island Records

The romance of the big voice works on people in every kind of music. Something about a real ear-filling vocal sound sells us, however briefly, on what we might call the big-voice fallacy: the notion that any feeling becomes deeper or more real when sung to the outer limit. It applied to Whitney Houston when she insisted tutta forza that she would always love you, and to Luciano Pavarotti when he capped many a mediocre performance of Puccini's Nessun dorma with a winner-take-all swipe at the final high note.

Florence Welch has a huge voice, and it helped propel the flame-haired English singer and her band from zero to pop stardom in just two years. Welch's dramatic costuming, high-intensity stage presence and air of heedless, rushing-over-the-moors Romance have all sped her ascent.

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Of course only the audible parts of that package can fit into Welch's latest CD, best heard perhaps while contemplating the singer's swoony, Pre-Raphaelite image on the cover. Ceremonials is very conscious of itself as a second album from a performer known for outsized expression: The songs, arrangements and production style make a nearly continuous argument for the supreme truth of bigness.

Welch's debut disc Lungs fashioned a lumpy and sometimes arresting quilt from scraps drawn from old-style English folk traditions, punkish rock, Celtic pop, vintage soul and a kind of maximal drumming that might have seemed African if it weren't so primitive. Ceremonials is more uniform in style, and that's not necessary a virtue. Much of the album presents an indistinct terrain formed from songs that depend on oversized mainstream chorus-mongering. The uplifting All This and Heaven Too epitomizes the tone, working up a resonant storm of strings and voices while treading water melodically. The banal Shake It Out, No Light, No Light and Spectrum all follow this pattern, and all go on too long, as if achieving transcendence were just a matter of hanging in there.

The best songs break from this dreary model. Breaking Down is a tightly-written, one-off venture in chunky vintage pop, with catchy melodies in verse and chorus and a breeziness that doesn't exist anywhere else on the disc. Leave My Body has a bluesy feeling that veers towards gospel as the backup chorus comes in, with its exhortations to move "up to higher ground."

Lover to Lover explores a darker, vintage soul idiom, over a backing of stiff-fingered piano, handclaps, moody organ and syncopated bass. The stark Seven Devils goes a similar route in its arresting verses, levelling out into a more pop-friendly style in the chorus.

What the Water Gave Me foregrounds the folkish side of Welch's music, in its ageless-sounding chorus melody. The lyrics hint at a watery suicide à la Virginia Woolf or Shakespeare's Ophelia, as portrayed in John Everett Millais's Pre-Raphaelite portrait.

Water and air are Welch's symbolic elements, just as earth and fire belong to another current singer with huge pipes and a big Romantic streak: Amy Lee of Evanescence, whose recent self-titled album has a kind of titanic solidity when set next to Ceremonials. Lee's American gothic spirit is grittier than the diaphanous ethos of Welch, and her songwriting is generally sturdier. Nothing on Ceremonials can offer the punch of What You Want, the first single from Evanescence.

Welch is the more subtle performer, however, capable of veering from a full cry to a soft coo in a single phrase. Her potential remains huge, in part because this album doesn't deliver the knockout blow that many of us hoped for.

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POP: Land & Sea

  • Sarah Slean
  • Pheromone/Universal
  • Four stars

Downloads may have reduced the number of CDs being pressed, but they haven't stopped people from making double albums, as Slean shows here. On the land side, she rocks (rock being a form of land, after all) with Joel Plaskett handling the production duties, and while the rhythm arrangements are sometimes plodding, the melodies are sprightly and occasionally full of vinegar, as on the anti-social stomp Society Song. By contrast, the sea side is string-soaked and dramatic, with Slean – who not only co-produced but did half of the arrangements – showing off both her compositional depth and vocal heft. Both are amazing, but I'd generally rather stay at sea. – J.D. Considine

COUNTRY/FOLK: Get Yourself Home

  • Laura Repo
  • Independent
  • Three and a half stars

The singer with the summer peach voice suggests we peruse her snapshots – "look at 'em slow, one at a time." A bittersweet shuffle, A Three Inch Stack of Photographs isn't about nostalgia, but perspective and old stories that never change, for good or for bad. On her affecting, melodic third album, the Toronto songstress Laura Repo wins with lullabies, lovely harmonies, a waltz about a wedding dress never worn, sweet weariness and one high-and-lonesome ballad about a city (Montreal) where she can unwind. Get Yourself Home explores bygones – things missed and things gained, not always in black and white. Tuneful and relaxed, this record never stops. – Brad Wheeler

ROCK: Lulu

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  • Lou Reed & Metallica
  • Warner
  • One and a half stars

The actual flight of the Hindenburg was fine – it was the instantaneous deplaning that ruined things. On the other hand, Lulu, the unlikely conceptual album inspired by German dramatist Frank Wedekind's early 20th-century plays about an abused dancer, is quite the disaster until its better final tracks. The weird walk on the Lou side by heavy-metal grimacers Metallica closes with the tense acoustic number Little Dog, the dynamic Dragon and the contemplative 19-plus minutes of Junior Dad. The rest is mostly Reed's off-pitch poetry, set uneasily to generic guitar grunges. It's unsettling at times; not since the Vichy French has the term collaboration held such an ugly connotation. – B.W.

CLASSICAL: Carte Postale: Music for string quartet by José Vieira Brandao, Alessandro Annunziata, José Evangelista, Miguel Del Aguila, Dimitri Nicolau, Paquito D'Rivera, and Airat Ichmouratov

  • Quatuor Alcan
  • Atma Classique
  • Three stars

Postcards are short, as are most of these pieces, and, like postcards, they provide a snapshot of someplace we'd have to travel to get to – Latin America and Greece, Spain and Russia. A modal twist in a melody or a rhythm to a dance that has a name in another language might be what orients us, but most of the music reminds us less of how multifarious the world is than how small it has become: Even places well off the track have been tidied for the tourists. Quatuor Alcan's performances are attractive but somewhat monochromatic, like photos taken through the windows of a tour bus, although certain pieces beckon us back for longer stays: José Evangelista's tantalizing Spanish Garlands, Paquito D'Rivera's Wapango and Alessandro Annunziata's Meltemi. – Elissa Poole

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