Do you know Florence + the Machine? They’re not so much a group as a musical vehicle for Florence Welch, a UK songstress who works with a cast of session and live musicians. She and the crew are very popular in Great Britain and have gotten some traction Stateside.
Florence + the Machine are the latest example of a rising rock aesthetic. Take post-feminist bravado, mix it with Renaissance fair artiness, add a splash of ’80s panache, and you’re there. Other contemporary acts mining this terrain include Bat for Lashes, My Brightest Diamond and St. Vincent. Artistic antecedents are Kate Bush, Annie Lennox, Tori Amos and Sugarcubes.
You can probably blame Joanna Newsom for making mystical high drama a legitimate musical expression once again. Dawn “the Faun” McCarthy, of Bay Area freaky deekies Faun Fables, also played pagan midwife to this sound. But whereas those two acts are more folksy in nature, the new breed of lady troubadours come brandishing electric instruments in addition to the requisite harps, timpani and glockenspiels.
You might have heard the Florence + the Machine tune “Kiss with a Fist (is Better Than None)” — it’s been in a couple of films and TV shows. A bruising little post-punk ditty, it actually doesn’t resemble anything else on their most recent record, Lungs. The song is basically Katrina & the Waves‘ “Walking on Sunshine” recast as a domestic violence ballet. Example lyrics:
I broke your jaw once before
I spilled your blood upon the floor
You broke my leg in return
So sit back and watch the bed burn
Break the lock if it don’t fit
A kick to the teeth is good for some
A kiss with a fist is better then none
As someone who came of age in the 1980s, I find it amusing and slightly puzzling to hear new artists copping Kate Bush. Sure, Tori Amos and a handful of the Lilith Fair types drifted in that direction, but I don’t remember any of those acts rocking giant tom-tom sounds with gated reverb, ala Peter Gabriel. For these new female musicians, over-the-top is par for the course.
Florence Welch is likely the best singer of this new batch of artists. Like Dawn McCarthy and even Cat Power, Welch has powerfully throaty pipes. Yet she’s equally comfortable with blue notes and soulful phrasing. This makes her stand out from peers like Bat for Lashes, who stick to more gothic modes of vocalization.
Welch is also adept at vocal layering (perhaps too adept). Here’s where the Annie Lennox comparisons come in. I haven’t heard madrigal-style call-and-response vocals since Lennox’s Medusa, or maybe even Eurythmics. It’s jarring to hear such a bold (and somewhat dorky) musical flourish, but it’s also kind of refreshing.
Right now all the boy bands are into throwback lo-fi or pan-global culture-jacking. If I hear one more preppy twentysomething dude copping Graceland or singing under 50 tons of reverb, I’ll gag.
Which is why I’m with the ladies.