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Album review: Florence + the Machine's 'Ceremonials'

October 31, 2011 |  7:25 pm

Album review: Florence + the Machine's 'Ceremonials'

Sometimes the toughest challenge for a singer like Florence Welch is to learn how to wield the kind of pulmonary power that can make the heavens quake. On Florence + the Machine’s 2009 debut, the fittingly named “Lungs,” the flame-haired countess of theatrical art-pop voraciously tore into songs with her throaty wail. In wide-screen vistas like “Dog Days Are Over,” Welch would chew scenery while the Machine valiantly toiled to get a musical word in edgewise. For all her prodigious talent, it sometimes didn’t seem Welch was listening to the very song she was singing, she was so busy filling it with noise.

On her follow-up, “Ceremonials,” Welch has struck a fantastic and necessary balance. She’s found a way to honor her Bjorkian appetites for lavish orchestral spectacle while finding the depth and subtlety of her voice. She’s become a better actor, a keener listener and still manages to let it rip on occasion. But she also knows when to hush up, like at the close of “Spectrum,” when Tom Monger’s harp gorgeously flutters and dips around her.

Welch wrote many of the songs on “Ceremonials” with Paul Epworth, Britain’s premier producer who knows a thing or two about working with mighty-piped prodigies. He cowrote and produced “Rolling in the Deep,” a master class in mounting drama, from the chart-topping Adele. The same hush-then-explode dynamics are on display here, with the hypnotizing “Seven Devils” as a spooky stand-out.

But other songwriters know how to mine Welch’s multifaceted voice as well. James Ford, from the purist dance collective Simian Mobile Disco, collaborated with her on “Breaking Down,” which sounds like the final missive of a stir-crazy ice princess from her frozen palace. Welch delivers the phrase “I’m breaking down again” with wicked nonchalance, proof that not every drama needs to be blasted on the big screen to get our attention.

Florence + the Machine
Island Records
Three and a half stars (out of four)


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—Margaret Wappler