Florence Welch is deeply impressive on “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful”

florence-welch

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Countless singers have profited from subjecting their raw talents and pedestrian image to a trial by fire, often at the hands of discerning music execs. The synergism of a politely edgy aesthetic, expert media training and just a whiff of the charisma that once lit up their busking corner is often what propels artists to the upper echelons of pop.

Yet an artist’s embryonic incarnations can also prove fascinating to their fan base, and at times leave them pining churlishly for a purer distillation of their musical messiah. That nobody longs for Florence and the Machine to revert to the garage-rock of “Kiss with a Fist” goes to show how ingenious Florence Welch’s shift from Lily Allen peer to medieval wench-chic was.  

Her reinvention spurred 2009’s Lungs to soundtrack a summer of daisy chain-making for many a middle-class teenager. It is to Welch’s credit however, that her festival-friendly attire was the perfect accompaniment to the pompous, string-strewn production and fantastical lyrical imagery of her music.

This sound was arguably perfected on 2012’s Ceremonials, but those left exhausted by that record’s Gothic bombast may find reprieve with the more traditional rock of their latest effort, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful.

Just don’t come expecting the puckishness of “Kiss with a Fist”. “What Kind of Man” flexes a few angry muscles with its edgy guitar strokes and indignant howls (“You let me dangle / at cruel angles” and so on and so forth), but the track’s one-line chorus and Will Gregory’s stiff brass section never emulsify, blunting the track’s ferocity when it should be charging into battle.

But this is a rare and minor fumble. Elsewhere, Gregory’s contributions add a swashbuckling flavour to otherwise sober assessments of modern relationships, particularly on the rallying stomp of “Queen of Peace”.

Aside from her voice, Welch’s trump card has always been her otherworldly expressions of familiar emotions. For the first time however, her lyrics shine a light on once foreboding shadows. Rather than a stab at spiritual titillation, the title track’s opening reference to a crucifix stands as nothing more than an allusion to the bland Los Angeles vista facing Welch as she jumped into an unhealthy romance with an indecisive man.

This man is the target of Welch’s scorn for much of the album, but only on “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful” does she concede that there is a reward for those who persevere in love: “Like an atmosphere around me / I’m happy you’re beside me”. This sense of optimism is mirrored by Gregory, his swelling brass casting golden rays across the track’s curdling emotions.

Welch’s voice takes once again centre stage, with the guttural echo that made her a household name sounding stronger than ever on the album’s uptempo moments. She carries the skeletal arrangements of “Various Storms & Saints” and “Long & Lost” on her shoulders, occasionally dipping into beautifully hushed registers that ripple like a chill through the speakers .

Welch has always been a purveyor of multi-layered song structures, with songs such as “No Light, No Light” rolling out b-sections that a lesser artist would sever and stretch into top lines for separate songs. That tradition is upheld on “Third Eye”, a hands-in-the-air and (dare we say?) festival-friendly tribute to Fleetwood Mac, with a dash of gospel rhetoric for good measure.

How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful does more than move Florence and the Machine away from the stylistic corner they had previously backed themselves into. Shorn of the dramatic production of Lungs and Ceremonials, tracks such as “Third Eye” and “Delilah” still deliver the same brand of sweeping ecstasy as well as any other song in the band’s catalogue, proving that sometimes it doesn’t matter what you wear or what your original intentions were – there are some people who simply belong on a festival stage.

9.0/10

[Music] Top 20 Tracks of 2014, Part One (#20 – 11)

No musical trend in recent memory has maintained its credibility quite as strongly as the house resurgence. In it’s purest form, the sparse but meticulously built beats affiliated with the genre are putty in the hands of a capable songwriter. Repetition is a hallmark, but so is solidity; with a serviceable melody locked down, certain artists thrive in their adventures with the blank canvas, an honest musical space that leaves orthodox themes (love, sex, heartbreak, repeat) ugly and exposed. This inherent pluckiness means that even the most chart-chomping house cut can find some love from the alt-music blogosphere, if not for its emotional resonance, then for a semi-ironic admiration of it’s 90’s credentials.

The house movement has been something of a trojan horse in the UK, ushering a host of homegrown talents – MNEK, Duke Dumont, Clean Bandit – into the Top 40, as well as allowing comparably exotic acts – Kiesza, Faul & Wad Ad – to be welcomed with open arms (Take that, UKIP). Our list reflects this popularity, but also bridges the gap between radio-friendly hits and Pitchfork-approved gems. Also on our radar this year are talent show also-rans, a Cuban sex-pest and a smattering of “conscious uncouplings”.

Enjoy.

***

20. Pitbull – Timber [feat. Ke$ha], TBA

pitbull

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The unlikely union of country music and dance arrived last year in the form of Avicii’s “Wake Me Up”, but that was a rather stony-faced foundation for what should have been an unashamedly tacky subgenre.

Enter mediocre rapper Pitbull, LOL-pop refugee Ke$ha, and a tangy, harmonica-led instrumental. “Timber” is purpose-built for dance floor domination; Mr. Worldwide’s verses are mercifully brief, serving as clumsy foreplay for the song’s infectious hook and riotous breakdown. He isn’t a complete spare part, however: that pre-chorus is what sweaty, late hour nightclub-based dreams are made of.

See also: “Wild Wild Love” [feat. GRL], “Wake Me Up” / “Hey Brother” by Avicii

19. Le Youth – Dance With Me [feat. Dominique Young Unique], TBA

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Available to buy on iTunes

On his second single, L.A.-based DJ Le Youth eschews the sumptuous ebb and flow of his Cassie-sampling breakthrough hit “C O O L”, instead turning in a relentlessly funky jam built on curt snippets from TLC’s iconic “No Scrubs”. Jubilant house piano stabs and a spongy bassline negate Dominique Young Unique’s limp rap.

See also: Le Youth’s excellent Fixtape, “Falling Scrubs” (TLC vs. Haim – Carlos Serrano Mash-Up)

18. MNEK – Every Little Word, TBA

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Available to buy on iTunes

Considering the current ubiquity of the genre, rising British star Uzoechi Osisioma Emenike (A.K.A MNEK) took a gamble in not following up his Gorgon City collaboration “Ready For Your Love” with another sleek house-inspired gem. “Every Little Word” is arguably just as sweet in its content, but frames MNEK’s soulful voice with confrontational production tricks. Drums pound, basslines wobble comically, and a randy Darth Vader asks repeatedly if we “fuck to this sh*t”.

No judgment if you do.

See also: Ready for Your Love, Baby”  by Rudimental [feat. MNEK & Sinead Harnett]

17. Faul & Wad Ad VS. Pnau – Changes, Changes E.P.

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Available to buy on iTunes

With a whirling saxophone, euphoric synths and a children’s choir (lifted from Pnau’s frankly creepy 2007 single “Baby”) all vying for your attention over the course of six minutes, it’s a miracle this debut effort from French producers Faul & Wad Ad isn’t a convoluted mess. The duo take care to ensure the separate elements all get a chance to shine, but it’s that sax-lad denouement that lends “Changes” its earthy beauty.

See also: Changes” (Bontan Remix)

16. Kiesza – Hideaway, TBA

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Available to buy on iTunes

This ridiculously assured debut from Canadian pop ingénue Kiesza hit the UK No. 1 spot in April, although punters were perhaps so entranced by the transcendent deep-house cut’s one-take, choreography-heavy video that they failed to notice a crucial lack of identity between the strong verses and understated breakdown.

As much she feels like a guest vocalist on her own track, Kiesza still has the makings of a top tier popstar.

See also: What Is Love

15. St. Vincent – Digital Witness, St. Vincent

St-Vincent

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Critics bemoaned the lack of Anne “St. Vincent” Clark’s signature riffing on her latest self-titled record, but the glossy, pseudo-psychedelic saunter of “Digital Witness” is all the better for it, instead leaving the heavy-lifting to a rubbery horn section and stonking bass.

A scathing treatise on social media, Clark asks “If you can’t see me / What’s the point of doing anything?” – skewering our if-a-tree-falls-in-a-forest approach to what were once life’s simple pleasures.

See also: Birth In Reverse”, “Prince Johnny

14. Ariana Grande – Problem [feat. Iggy Azalea], TBA

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Available to buy on iTunes

An underfed chorus mars this otherwise brilliant slice of summery hip-hop-pop, courtesy of perennial hit-maker Max Martin (Britney Spears, Katy Perry). Nickelodeon star Grande has been on our radars since last year’s “The Way” positioned her as the new Mariah Carey, but “Problem” ushers the twenty year old into more club-friendly territory.

Her sugary but powerful voice contrasts nicely with the track’s thumping beat and post-“Thrift Shop” saxophone breakdown, but it’s rapper Iggy Azalea who really impresses, putting tired assertions of her “swag” aside for a moment to deliver an attitude-packed verse.

See also:The Way”, “Wait (The Whisper Song)” by Ying Yang Twins, “Fancy” by Iggy Azalea [feat. Charli xcx]

13. Shift K3Y – Touch, Touch E.P.

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Available to buy on iTunes

There’s a whiff of Craig David’s early noughties forays into garage on “Touch”, thanks in part to Shift K3Y’s (nee Lewis Jankel) soft, nasally timbre. The italo disco-flavoured production is surprisingly minimalist, although the track whirls by at such a pace that mistaking it for a kitchen-sink affair would be forgivable.

See also: Make It Good, Keep Your Mouth Shut (Things That We Do)” [feat. Griminal]

12. Soft Lit – Ocean King, GODMODE: Common Interests Were Not Enough to Keep Us Together

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Available to buy from Godmode’s online store 

New York-based roommates-turned-musical duo Tyler McCauley and visual artist Tara Chacon meld R&B-friendly melodies with airy, organic production on “Ocean King”, one of the many highlights from Godmode’s excellent label showcase compilation Common Interests Were Not Enough to Keep Us Together.

McCauley contrasts almost-murmured verses with dark, fizzing synths and rattling drum machines come the chorus, with Chacon’s Kate Bush-style harmonies selling a dramatic tale of a love gone sour.

See also: Lately

11. Shakira – Empire, Shakira

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Available to buy from iTunes

Blank out all memories of the underwhelming Rihanna duet “Can’t Remember to Forget You”; pop’s ultimate bohemian streamlined her baroque musical style into an Alanis Morissette-esque piano ballad-cum-rock number that only she could pull off, complete with distorted stadium-sized howls.

See also: Chasing Shadows“, “Cut Me Deep” [feat. Magic!]

Continued – Tracks #10 – #1