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Florence + The Machine 'How Big How Blue How Beautiful' Album Review: Junk Mail

by Carolyn Menyes   Jun 4, 2015 17:50 PM EDT

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Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week, Carolyn Menyes, Ryan Book and Ryan Middleton chat about Florence + The Machine' new album How Big How Blue How Beautiful. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments section, and check back next week for more.

Carolyn Menyes: I didn't really get a lot of birthday presents this year, it's the result of being an uninteresting age and having a million other things happening in my life. But, what I DID get this June 2 was a new Florence + The Machine album after three years of wearing Ceremonials out. I wasn't disappointed when listening to How Big How Blue How Beautiful. It has that distinctive Florence + The Machine sound to it. I think that could be my only real complaint. Lyrically, this album is different, but sonically I feel like a lot of these songs could fit on any other Florence album.

What are y'all's initial thoughts?

Ryan Book: A) Happy Birthday. B) I actually found the album quite different sonically from Ceremonials. Welch has one of the most epic voices in popular music, yet I found her approach much more subtle this time around. My go-to test of the "epic-ness" of a voice is to imagine them singing with a mountain in the background. Is the mountain exploding into a volcano as they hit the crescendo? If yes, it's epic. There were less of those moments on How Big... "What Kind of Man" and "Mother" being exceptions. The album seems to follow second single "Ship To Wreck"s lead for the most part. Not necessarily a disappointment, but-like Judas Priest-I don't complain when Flo goes big.

* = Ryan Book's epic-voice test has not been approved by any scientific/musical body.

Ryan Middleton: Ryan - I will back you on that epic voice test.

Welch has one of the best voices in popular music and it is once again front and center on this album. However I do agree with you that she is letting her musicians (The Machine) show their stuff on this album. She lets it rip throughout the album, even in more subtle forms like against the horns on "Queen Of Peace." The album is sonically varied from soft string and piano ballads, to more anthemic almost rock songs. It helps when you have Welch as your singer who can adapt to nearly any situation.

What were some of the highlights for you guys?

CM: Yeah, Ryan (Book). I think you should work on that patent and use Welch as your prime example of a passing grade. I don't think anyone can or should deny ever that she has the biggest, bestest wailing voice out there. She is a vocal queen among us lame-os. Like always, Welch is the red-haired centerpiece of this record, and maybe that's why it feels so similar to me. Her vocal is so distinctive and strong that it'll make whatever else she does consistent and cohesive, at least to my little ears.

If HBHBHB (I'm not writing out that album title every time) has any sort of different edge to it, it would be the Machine. I feel like they were given some major room to rock on this album. "What Kind of Man" hits SO hard. The guitar work battles Welch for supremacy and I'm not sure who wins. It sometimes feels lame and lazy to me to pick the lead single as the album's centerpiece, but Florence + The Machine definitely made the right single choice here. I'm so jazzed to hear that live tomorrow at GovBall.

"Delilah" has a similar rock edge to it and this crazy groove. If she wasn't a dance 'til Delilah showed her how, that chick must've also helped her to write this song. It's so easy to jive to, which is a great additon to Florence + The Machine's discography.

RB: Agreeing with both of your points while answering Ryan (Middleton)'s question on favorite moments: It all goes back to the first chord on that first single, and Carolyn isn't lazy at all to cite that as the album's standout track. I flashback to wherever I was driving when I heard it for the first time. The world had spent so much time worrying about electric guitars in Mumford & Sons' music, it hadn't stopped to consider if Welch might be planning the same thing. That first chord shocked me, and not in a bad way. It gave Godzilla a Mothra to fight.

Interesting you mention her appearance at Governors Ball this weekend...how's her leg doing? It seems like a jerk-move to line them up against The Decemberists tomorrow.

RM: Yeah, agreed Ryan, the initial chords in "Ship To Wreck" help set the tone for the album, giving the band license to explore beyond the softer ballads that Welch is known for dominating. The LP starts with a flourish moving to possibly the strongest track on the album "What Kind Of Man."

As for other standouts, the cooing in "Third Eye," along with Welch's chorus, makes it one of the catchier tracks from the album. "Mother," the natural finale to the album, also shows off that electric guitar and a soaring Welch as The Machine lets it rip in the chorus.

Her leg seems to be getting better. She performed on the Tonight Show and was swaying back and forth, albeit gingerly and clearly favoring her right leg. She can perform, though it might be painful to stand for a full set.

What is your read on the performance delivered by the Machine?

CM: Book, you make a really interesting point about the electrical elements of this album versus Mumford's recent transition. I think the reason this isn't as discussed is because there's always been a fullness to Florence + The Machine's music. When you look at Between Two Lungs and songs like "Dog Days Are Over" or "Drumming Song," there's more experimental instrumentation, but there's still a certain amount of gusto behind the music. This has always been a boisterous band. It makes the addition of electric guitar and traditional rock elements feel more organic. This is opposed to Mumford & Sons, who didn't even have a drummer until this album.

I still feel mixed about electric guitar, drum-filled Mumford but I love the additional layers on HBHBHB. It just makes Welch seem more like a badass b*tch, and that's all because of the Machine.

RB: I might not go as far as to say "b*tch" but there is a similar word I often think of when looking at Welch, and it's probably due to the frequent occult citations across her catalogue. Accordingly, I was shocked when "Which Witch" wasn't included on the standard tracklist...Definitely one of the highlights of the album for me, even in demo form. This especially bums me out because I prefer to buy on vinyl when available, and that it won't be available on my preferred format. I suppose it's a strategy to try and force me to buy both.

Ain't gonna happen, Island.

RM: I agree about the electric guitar, it adds an extra layer of musicality to the album. She is still able to keep it soft with more mellow ballads with "Various Storms & Saints," while easily transition to the jazzy "Deliah" in the next song. The horns at the end of the title track are powerful and pretty beautiful as a note that the horn players can be epic too with Welch. It almost sounds like the introduction for Welch up on that high mountain before she belts out her sweet nothings to the world.

How do you think Welch does lyrically and as a singer on this LP?

CM: You never know what happens in development, so it is a wonder that "Which Witch" was left off. It definitely grooves even when it's not fully mastered, and it feels delightfully witchy and wonderful. And the shouting chorus is so powerful. UGH. I want this in my life so hard. As far as the vinyl thing, don't they mostly come with digital downloads as well? I don't know how these things work. I move too often to lug around records, though I admire the hobby.

Vocally, Welch slays it. There's no other way for her to approach a song, to be honest. Lyrically, I love the dramatics of the breakup elements to this album. We get it right off the bat on "Ship to Wreck." "And oh my love remind me, what was it that I said? / I can't help but pull the earth around me, to make my bed / And oh my love remind me, what was it that I did?" she sings. That is some next-level emotion. Taylor Swift could never.

RB: Not even touching a Taylor Swift comparison...the dark web is just too dark.

I read an interesting interview with Welch recently where she stated that the original idea behind the album was a concept about witch trials in Los Angeles, and a love story thrown in for good measure. "It was kind of tied up with things in my own life, but it was an escapism." "Lol" to however that ties into her actual life, but I don't think fantasies about witches and the like-these beings we typically imagine living in the woods or some distant highland if it's Shakespeare-got away from her on this one. The lyrics Carolyn cites from "Ship To Wreck" struck me when the single was first released, its centering on elements of nature...kind of an organic theme running throughout her music. It's tough to imagine her singing about city life. A Victorian fantasy girl perhaps, but never a steampunk.

RM: It is interesting the finished version of "Which Witch" didn't make the final cut. The chorus is almost as surprising as the electric guitar that burst through in the opening moments of "Ship To Wreck."

Vocally, Welch crushes this album. She is able to take over tracks at times with her angelic voice, and maybe when Welch is at her best is when The Machine works as an equal to her, not just to support her cries of lost love.

Lyrically, Welch spends a lot of time touching on the difficult times in her past and St. Jude is great example of that. It is one of the more melancholy cuts, but hits right in the feels with the chorus as Welch admits the lack of stability around her, "St. Jude, the patron saint of the lost causes / St. Jude, we were lost before she started / St. Jude, we lay in bed as she whipped around us / St. Jude, maybe I've always been more comfortable in chaos."

Can any of you guys poke holes in the album? It seems pretty complete to me.

RB: It might not be a "hole," per se, but HBHBHB had a lot to live up to from this fan, who considered Ceremonials the best album of 2011. We discussed Welch stepping back and letting the Machine play more prominently. Did it work? Yes, in that this was still a great album. Do I prefer it to a more bombastic Welch, delivering "Heartlines"-esque hooks on every track? I wouldn't go that far. It still represents a well-measured and safe branching into new sounds however.

CM: Yeah, I think this is a good contender for one of my favorite albums of 2015, so it's hard for me to poke holes in it. Sometimes, I do think that Florence should have gone for it like 100 percent. A fully electric, rock album may have been more satisfying. But I will revel in this album for a long time to come and I will DIE when I see them tomorrow, though my heart will break for The Decemberists across the field.

RM: Agreed on all accounts. The album sounds like a full body of work from start to finish and flows easily from "Ship To Wreck" to "Mother" and even the last two non-demo bonus tracks, which seem a little thrown in at the end (possibly my only criticism), but they are still quality tracks. I will hold down The Decemberists for you tomorrow, though Florence will be pretty incredible.

Who here can't want for the thousands of garbage (and maybe a few) EDM remixes of these songs in the coming weeks and months. I will need to tune out of my soundcloud feed for a while. Jeez Florence this is what happens when you are so good.

The album has is a complete work with The Machine shining almost as much as Welch's flawless voice. They took another step by adding new instrumental layers like the electric guitar and it worked incredibly well. This is one you listen from start to finish without a thought of pressing pause unless you want to rewind for a second listen. One of the albums of the year thus far.

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