Tuesday, July 01, 2008

florence and the voice

It was partly a hatred of the vocal histrionics of commercial chart music that drove me into the arms of indie rock. My conversion to the less polished music of The Charlatans, Happy Mondays and The House of Love coincided, not accidentally, with a period when vocal divas dominated the charts, and the likes of Ian Brown, David Gedge and Mark E Smith sounded thrillingly, insouciantly unpolished and unpractised. I used to obsess over my VHS of the Stone Roses at Blackpool, marvelling over the way Ian Brown’s voice slowly, song by song, began to settle until after a while he sat neatly, and only slightly tunelessly, over the slight, sly music his bandmates conjured up. For the first six songs, to my delight, he was an utter mess.

Fashions have come and gone in indie music and a series of truly gifted singers have drifted in and out of the limelight, but it’s striking how few have been emboldened or inclined enough to open their lungs and belt it out. The full-blooded, top-volume vocal is even less fashionable in indie circles than the guitar solo, and still the preserve of commercial dance music and arena-rock.

So it's hard to know what to make of Florence & The Machine. Her peers are clearly from the folkier end of the indie spectrum – Emmy The Great and Lightspeed Champion; the guitars on her debut, 'Kiss With A Fist' sound like The White Stripes; and the words ("a kiss with a fist is better than none") are pretty uncompromising, indeed controversial. Yet she belts out her lyrics with a note-perfect perfectionism and power more reminiscent of Leona Lewis than her indie contemporaries. I find listening to the two songs on the 7" quite unsettling, if ultimately rewarding.

"Kiss With A Fist" is nothing special, in fact, trading more on Florence’s vivid lyrical imagery and delivery than the quality of the song. It’s beautifully paced and propulsive, and probably sounds brilliant on the dancefloor, but it doesn’t do anything for me – and Florence's vocal, so over-the-top, is hindering, rather than helping, me get with it.

But the b-side, an extraordinary take on the Cold War Kids' "Hospital Beds", makes me think again completely. It starts with Florence belting out the verse acapella; her full-pelt, bluesy, delivery subsequently accompanied by a spare acoustic guitar and a kick drum. I still hate the exhibitionism of her vocal pyrotechnics, but somehow the song creates a spectacular, heartfelt intimacy and it's impossible to deny that it's the vocal that whips things along. In folk music, of course, mannered and controlled vocals are nothing new, but it still seems somewhat dazzling to hear the power Florence commands placed in this context. I'm glad when it finishes, yet I put it on repeat.

Like all new artists, what matters are the songs, and it’s too early to say whether Florence & The Machine has them. The Cold War Kids cover is, however, one of the most exciting cover versions I’ve heard in many a month, and I’m briefly lifted, suspiciously optimistic; my hope leavened by a dread that if she keeps singing like that, so bloody wonderfully, I’ll end up hating her guts.

No comments: