Florence in Catsuit Brings Art Deco, Pompous Rock to U.S.

Florence Welch
Singer Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine. The band is starting a U.S. tour. Photographer: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

After conquering the U.K. pop charts, Florence Welch is heading Stateside.

As her band Florence + the Machine starts touring this week and releases a live album “MTV Unplugged,” it’s easy to see what the fuss is about. Florence has a statuesque presence, elephantine choruses and lavish art-deco staging.

Last year, critics lauded her second album “Ceremonials.” It reached No. 6 in the Billboard 200 chart and scaled similar heights in many polls at the end of 2011.

Some concertgoers will be blown away -- as were many of those who saw her recent sold-out London shows at the Royal Albert Hall and Alexandra Palace.

Others will be flattened by the hurricane of self-importance, incessant bluster and vacuous pomp.

Welch will be touring relentlessly all year, starting with Santa Barbara, California, on April 14 and Coachella the next day. She will win many more fans and “Ceremonials” will take another step toward canonization as a classic album.

Yet “Ceremonials” is extremely dislikeable. Welch’s debut “Lungs” mixed rousing piano-powered choruses and a steely feminine perspective. Its peculiar instrumentation was played with ramshackle abandon, held together with sharp charisma.

“Ceremonials” attempted to magnify this into flawless, big-budget stadium rock wrought with meaning.

Twilight Histrionics

Welch’s 2010 contribution to a “Twilight” soundtrack clearly gave her the taste for anodyne histrionics. “Ceremonials” is like an unholy union of Meat Loaf and Enya and horribly produced. It sounds as if the mixing desk was set to the equivalent of CAPS LOCK BOLD.

Live, the two CDs remain painfully distinct. The huff and puff of “Shake It Out” and “Never Let Me Go” fails to move. “Heartlines” and “Leave My Body” add choruses and strings for wholesale musical overstatement. U2, with whom Florence + the Machine briefly toured, is like Samuel Beckett by comparison.

Older songs provide a welcome contrast. “Dog Days Are Over” retains a ragged glee that defies the newfound big production. “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)” courses with a red-blooded passion.

Welch comes on as the height of elegance with her copper hair and a floor-length cape. She soon downsizes to a black velvet bodysuit with outlandish gold shoulders that make her look like one of Captain Kirk’s more challenging distractions.

Earlier in her career, she was famed for a wild vivacity. The bigger platform, with its expensive staging, calls for something more considered. Skipping frivolously then posing awkwardly, Welch is unsure of what this should be.

It would be irresponsible to dismiss her on the basis of an excruciating second album. For the time being, though, she is best left to the company of “Twilight” fans.

Rating: *.

What the Stars Mean:
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

“MTV Unplugged” was released yesterday on Island Records priced about $13 in the U.S. or 9 pounds in the U.K. Download rates vary across services.

The band’s tour includes New York’s Radio City Music Hall on May 8. The show moves to Australia later in May, with European appearances including Rock Werchter, Belgium, in July, before returning to the U.S. Information: http://www.florenceandthemachine.net/live/upcoming.

(Robert Heller is a music critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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