The first order of business this week is to correct a pretty glaring oversight.
I have somehow let Florence and the Machine get to a third album without sparing more than 50 words on them. This despite the fact that I enjoyed their first two, particularly the second, Ceremonials. In my criminally short Fifty Second Week review of it, I called Ceremonials a go-for-broke second album, and it is – Florence Welch took the opportunity her hit single afforded her and poured it into a statement of intent. The Machine goes big or the Machine goes home.
So when I heard about the third Florence album, How Big How Blue How Beautiful, and when I heard the smashing first single “Ship to Wreck,” I knew I would have to reserve some space here for it. This almost never happens – I can’t even remember the last time I repeatedly failed to review something I enjoy as much as I enjoy Florence and the Machine. There’s a particular switch in my head reserved for big-voiced, dramatic female singers, from PJ Harvey to Kate Bush to Neko Case to Natasha Khan, and Florence Welch trips that switch consistently.
I admit I was a bit worried about this record, since advance word described it as a quieter, more intimate affair. As is so often the case, advance word is a dirty, dirty liar. Since Ceremonials was released in 2011, Welch has lived through a breakup and a breakdown, and while there are a few tracks that could be considered restrained (most notably the lovely dirge “St. Jude”), the overwhelming majority of How Big lives up to its title. It’s produced by Markus Dravs, the man who stacks sounds for Arcade Fire, and some of these tracks have dozens of guest musicians. If what you like about Florence and the Machine is their penchant for the massive and the dramatic, this album won’t let you down.
It starts with “Ship to Wreck,” which is already one of my favorite singles of the year. A portrait of an out-of-control downward spiral set to jangly guitars, this song features a big-throated singalong chorus that sets the tone for the rest of the set. Second single “What Kind of Man” follows, its quieter introduction shattered by guitars and brass as Welch cranks that voice up. She practically yells her way through most of this tune, and it’s riveting. The title track follows suit – quieter opening, building up to something massive. This one debuts the 36-piece orchestra that makes sporadic appearances, and its brass section plays the song out in grandiose fashion.
And so it goes, from strength to strength. Welch has such a big, bold voice that the music often has to be big and bold behind her, or she’ll overpower it. The wall of music on How Big allows her to cut loose, as she does on the gigantic chorus of “Queen of Peace.” When she does decide to rein things in and croon, the results are similarly splendid. She sings the hell out of “Various Storms and Saints,” a lower-key meander with a delicate string section. “Hold on to your heart, don’t give it away,” she warns, echoing a theme of loss and building back up that permeates these songs.
The material on How Big remains strong and vibrant straight to the end. I’m a fan of the Neko Case-esque “Caught,” with its supple rising-chord chorus and Welch’s more subtle singing on the verses. I love the relentless “Third Eye,” the one song here that builds in an Arcade Fire influence, and the aforementioned “St. Jude,” with its orchestrated ambience. Closer “Mother” is a slinky bit of soul-pop that suits Welch down to the ground, with synth-y goodness provided by Paul Epworth. Even the bonus tracks are solid, particularly the rolling “Make Up Your Mind.”
Throughout, the main attraction is Welch’s voice – hearing it wrap around each of these songs, giving them exactly the amount of force and restraint required. She’s a great singer, she’s a very good songwriter, and this is a very strong album. I have no idea why it’s taken me this long to put all that in words, but there’s no way I’ll be ignoring her work here again.
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Speaking of bands I’ve unjustly ignored, there’s a new Dawes album.
I’m pretty sure I first heard about this Los Angeles quartet on The A.V. Club. If you’re a regular reader of that site, you probably know what I mean – in 2011, the Club posted a recommendation for the second Dawes album, Nothing is Wrong. This recommendation, no matter how sincerely meant, was written in such a way that the notoriously sarcastic and savvy commenters called it out as a paid advertisement. And from then on, to varying degrees, everything the A.V. Club staff recommends has been looked at suspiciously and compared, by the commenters, to Dawes, the undisputed pinnacle of all music.
It’s a funny meme, and it might not be as funny if the band itself were not so pleasant and unassuming. That’s probably why I’ve all but forgotten about them in this space, despite having liked all of their records. I included Nothing is Wrong in the 2011 Fifty Second Week, but that’s it. I wrote nothing about their third album, Stories Don’t End, despite listening a few times and enjoying it. And if not for two things, I might have forgotten about their fourth, the just-released All Your Favorite Bands, as well.
But yes, there are two things that have kept this album at the forefront of my mind. First is that it’s produced by David Rawlings, longtime musical partner of Gillian Welch, and I thought (correctly, as it turns out) that would be a smart pairing. And second, Dawes will headline the best summer festival in my hometown of Aurora, Illinois later this month, and if you live anywhere near the area, you should come. (Jason Isbell is headlining the second night, and I’ve heard nothing but good things about his new album too.)
So I paid particular attention to All Your Favorite Bands, and I’m glad I did, because I think it’s my favorite Dawes album. It’s their prettiest and most sentimental work, and you can hear the magic Rawlings brought to the table – songs are arranged with room to breathe, harmonies are recorded with a bit more natural roughness. Taylor Goldsmith’s writing remains straightforward, and Rawlings’ organic production suits it perfectly, adding new dimensions to what this band does.
The result is something that remains sweet for most of its running time, but never becomes saccharine. “Somewhere Along the Way” epitomizes Goldsmith’s approach – it’s a song of renewed hope, beginning in pain (“Somewhere along the way, the dots didn’t all connect, the promise became regrets…”) and ending with a hint of new dawns to come (“Somewhere along the way I started to smile again, I don’t remember when…”). The song rides a pleasant, delicate mid-tempo groove, a description that would work for a lot of these tunes.
The title track is a lovely piano-driven toast to a friend. I can think of few such toasts I like as much as “may all your favorite bands stay together.” “I Can’t Think About It Now” is a shuffling minor-key tale of obsession (with a swell guitar solo and Welch on backing vocals), while the sad “To Be Completely Honest” details the end of a relationship: “To be completely honest, I think I know how it ends, the universe continues expanding while we discuss the particulars of just being friends…”
My main quibble with this album is that the band sequenced one of its finest songs, “Right on Time,” near the end, almost like an afterthought. This song is superb, its alt-country beat and tasty main riff driving it onward. (It’s also one of a few on this low-key record that rocks.) Closer “Now That It’s Too Late, Maria” is a stream-of-consciousness story of dissolution: “There’s always more to say but I’m just skipping to the ending, when you move back to Texas and I meet a girl who wants to change her name…” It runs almost 10 minutes, it changes only slightly over that time, but it holds my attention all the way through thanks to some supple playing and a well-conjured dusky atmosphere. It’s unlike anything this band has done, and they pull it off.
Dawes is never going to be the kind of band that knocks your socks off. They’re more of a gentle caress, a lovely visit with friends in your backyard. All Your Favorite Bands is the prettiest thing they’ve made, even when it’s full of sorrow and regret, and it’s further proof that there is nothing at all wrong with pretty. I’m looking forward to hearing these songs live. Until then, I intend to keep listening to the record – I like it more each time I do.
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I don’t even want to mention the new Barenaked Ladies album, except to say that if any band should just pack it in, this one should. Their third post-Steven Page LP, Silverball, is a boring disaster, “mature” in all the wrong ways. I’m never going to hate this band, but really, they should stop. And that’s all I want to say about that.
Enough of that, though, because next week we have Muse, Of Monsters and Men and that bizarre collaboration between Franz Ferdinand and Sparks, winningly titled FFS. We shall reconvene in seven. And when we do, I will be forty-one. Happy birthday to me.
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