posted on July 08, 2009 19:00
A review of the album 'Lungs' by Florence & The Machine
Review Snapshot: Although Florence Welch may have garnered the press attention, the album's arrangement and production work ultimately makes Lungs a worthy listen.
The Cluas Verdict? 7 out of 10
Full Review: For over a year, Lungs has been hyped to high heaven, propelled by a combination of four strong singles and bandleader Florence Welch’s press-baiting off-stage antics. Musically, the media have leapt on the combination of soul and indie-pop that supposedly characterises Welch’s music , the latest in the series of British blue-eyed soulsters that have made their mark with a deft eye on both retro and contemporary pop. Indeed, one could make a case for Welch simply continuing that trend: she’s certainly got the voice, and the songs could reasonably be transformed into 60s soundalikes if a Ronson-type so desired. More important than such comparisons, and what most of the year-long hype seems to have forgotten, Welch’s work also contains large doses of negativity, doubt and despair, rendered not only in her lyrics, but evoked through the despairing timbre of the instruments accompanying them. What Lungs encapsulates is the power of texture, as well as the strength of the mood often teased out by spot-on production.
“Dog Days Are Over” opens with a mix of soul-power vocals and beautifully-embellished stomp-pop that effortlessly appears to justify the pre-release hype. While opening tracks are formulated to convince sceptics that the other tracks are worth listening to, “Dog Days Are Over” works because it emphasises the best aspects of the material that follows; Welch’s voice is spot on, the production is bright and the song is structurally sound, each dynamic change strategically placed to surprise and command attention.
Following “Dog Days,” the remainder of Lungs faces a depressingly familiar test: either each song will reach the high stature of the opening track, or they will fall beneath the expectations it engendered. “Between Two Lungs” exceeds these expectations and exemplifies the album’s strengths. One of the few tracks where both songwriting and production excel, in this case with a flurry of harmony and inspired instrumentation, it also calls attention to the album’s faults, as demonstrated by “Kiss With A Fist.” Although enjoyable in an average sort of way, its idiosyncratic garage rock sound is formulaic and draws attention to the more irritating aspects of Welch’s vocals; when her voice works it is attention-grabbing in the best possible way – warm and powerful – but when she takes her foot off the pedal it falls into the death-trap of Nashesque accent fixation.
The press may have emphasised Welch herself, but Lungs is shaped by the massed production efforts of Paul Epworth, James Ford and Steve Mackie, a trio that has crafted a significant portion of the British indie scene in recent years. Here, they work to create an album that can be enjoyed on a textural level, where the intricate arrangements are often more interesting than the “main” melody or vocal line. The various audio motifs that permeate the album, from glistening harp augmentations to pummelling drums, work to add a peculiarly ethereal touch to what would otherwise be a straightforward indie-pop album.
Thanks to this attention to arrangement, the album is peppered with highlights: “Drumming” is distinguished by its lolloping drums and similarly intense lyrics. Those same cascading drums combine with synth bleeps and gently-arching strings to bring the album to an official (and ambitious) close with the final original song, “Blinding.” Like “Between Two Lungs,” “Blinding” is both excellently composed and a stylistic aberration - in addition to what should be the starting point for Welch’s next release.
By the album’s end it is clear that the stand-out musical device is in the arrangements. While many tracks are gloriously melodic and the lyrics dark enough to justify further investigation, Lungs simply wouldn’t work as well without the sylvan, Gothic atmosphere conjured up by the recurring harps and strings that run throughout. On the few occasions where this approach is eschewed (such as “Kiss With A Fist”) the result simply isn’t as compelling. However, should Welch continue with the prevailing style on show here, with some growth her next release could be a strange touchstone – like modern indie-pop filtered through a lens of soul and Vashti Bunyan.