Monday, 29 August 2016

Florence at the flicks

Florence Welch by Greg Coulton, with shrine like decorations by me
Now that the dust has settled following the How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful tour, I find myself left with very happy memories of the two fantastic gigs I attended (you can read about Manchester on the opening leg of the 2015/16 tour, and about the bands London homecoming at Hyde Park in 2016).

I've also found a couple of momentos in the form of Laura Coulson's tour video, which really seems to capture the energy of the tour, and Greg Coulton's gorgeous and evocative illustration of Florence Welch ahead of the Hyde Park show, which was commissioned for a Time Out cover story. 

There will, hopefully, be other Florence + The Machine albums, other tours, but for now, I want to take a journey through a series of singular musical moments for the band, namely the four songs that the band have contributed to film soundtracks over the years.

We begin in 2010 with 'Heavy In Your Arms', which was written for the film adaptation of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight Eclipse.

A year after the release of debut album Lungs, the band were touring extensively while working on what was to become 2011's follow up, Ceremonials. While Lungs has a fierce emotional intensity and makes use of a certain amount of gothic imagery, it was very much a summer album, both in terms of it's release period (July 2009) and it's overall sound. Ceremonials, which was released in October 2011, was much darker, both sonically and lyrically, and, at the time, didn't seem to get the same level of critical acclaim as the bands debut. Which is a shame because it is an album you can keep coming back to, discovering and re-discovering different elements of, and features many of the bands most prized live moments, such as 'Spectrum' and 'Shake It Out'.

'Heavy In Your Arms', a surging slice of full on goth rock is, along with 'No Light, No Light' a good bridge between the two albums. Lyrically, it is a pretty straight forward murder ballad, which suits the themes of the Twilight Saga well. It was used within the film as the second song of the closing credits, and was widely performed by the band during the 2010 festival season, as well as on TV shows such as Letterman in the US. Watching the clip of 'Heavy In Your Arms' on Letterman is odd because, while the band are clearly giving it their all, the song comes across as much too big and loud for that kind of enclosed studio environment. It seems to have gone down better at festivals, where the full goth rock splendour and intensity of the song could be absorbed into the overall ambience of the festival in question.

This performance, from Oxygen festival, has a sort of emo Jefferson Airplane feel to it.

Whereas the bands performance of the song at that years Glastonbury had more of Bowie esque theatricality about it. 

Two years later, in 2012 the band were asked to contribute a song to the epic fantasy re-working of the Snow White story,  Snow White and the Huntsman, a script that had had a long wait to reach the big screen.  Fittingly, Florence + The Machine's 'Breath Of Life', an intense, charging, multi layered piece, evokes everything right about fantasy fiction soundtracks: Drama, suspense, big drums, orchestral swoops and swirls, choirs... If 'Heavy In Your Arms' was brooding, 'Breath of Life' was a chariot at full charge.

In preparation for the song, Welch was given access to some of the scenes from the film, and found herself being inspired by Charlize Theron's evil queen Ravenna. 

"I got a lot of material from her!" she told MTV, "Beauty, death, life... it was pushing all of my buttons."

In the same interview, she spoke of her excitement at getting to record the orchestral arrangement of the song with a sixty piece choir:

"My manager was looking at me going 'Do not get used to this. We cannot afford this 60-piece choir!' " she laughed. "It was just wonderful. Me and Isa [Summers, Welch's Machine partner, and co-writer of the track] were in there, these young women who made music for love, but with not much money or much reason. ... It was a really proud day for us. And, musically, for the composers at Universal to have understood the song and see it played out so beautifully, it was an amazing day. We felt a bit proper."

Due to it's complexities as a song, 'Breath of Life' doesn't appear to have been performed live much, though I did locate a clip of the band performing it live at Lollapalooza in 2012, which I would have included had there been less crowd noise on the recording. At the time of the songs release, the band were touring the Ceremonials album, and How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful was still three years away.

Why was there such a long wait between Ceremonials and How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful? In the light of the latter's release in 2015, Welch has talked about some of the personal issues she was facing in the interim period, including a relationship in freefall, which she effectively took a year off to deal with. In 2013, she was still dealing with those issues when Florence + The Machine were invited to contribute a track to the soundtrack of Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's jazz age novel The Great Gatsby.

2013 wasn't the first time that the book had been adapted for the big screen: Much like Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (the source material for the Twilight Saga) The Great Gatsby can be seen to have been adapted frequently, almost excessively. But in stamping his mark on the text, Luhrmann deployed his usual audacious take on the soundtrack, with hip-hop replacing jazz as the hedonists music of choice. This appears to have upset a number of people at the time, but was perfectly consistent for a man who had Mercutio crash the Capulet's ball to an amped up Kym Mazelle version of 'Young Hearts, Run Free' in Romeo + Juliet, and who soundtracked an immensely brooding and sexually charged tango sequence with a version of The Police's 'Roxanne' in Moulin Rouge.

Luhrmann's musical executive controller on the soundtrack was Jay Z, a credible choice given the hip hop centred nature of the piece, and the soundtrack overall comes across as better than you expect it to, albeit slightly disjointed at times.

Florence + The Machine contributed 'Over The Love' a mournfully atmospheric ballad. As a highly literate woman, Welch was au fait with the original text, and the literary references within the songs lyrics reflect this. The Great Gatsby was also one of the choices for the Florence + The Machine book club, Between Two Books, at the time, taking the bands relationship with the text full circle.

While I do like the recorded version of 'Over The Love', I really, really love the acoustic version of the song the band performed as part of the Chime For Change concert in 2013. The acoustic nature lends the song a whole different feel and character, while Welch really gives it her all, to the joy of fans in the crowd.

While 'Heavy In Your Arms' stands alone, it also serves as a sonic bridge between Lungs and Ceremonials. 'Breath of Life' could be seen to take some of the themes of Ceremonials further, and to infuse those themes with the all out velocity of epic fantasy, whereas the sheer heartbreak of 'Over The Love', while structurally very different to the songs that were to follow in 2015 on the How Big How Blue How Beautiful album, does feel as though it's coming from a similar place as songs such as 'Various Storms & Saints' which, while very different lyrically and musically, is ultimately a song about love and heartbreak.

Because heartbreak is such a recurring theme in Welch's lyrics, she joked in 2015 that she was "too happy to write" and that what she needed was someone new to break her heart so that she'd have something to write about. At British Summer Time she spoke of a different kind of heartbreak, following both the Orlando shootings and the EU Referendum result, and the changing connotations of 'Spectrum' as a live song on the Ceremonials tour in 2012, when it was very much a 'let's go crazy' dance moment to it's accidental arrival in 2016 as a post Orlando shootings solidarity anthem goes to show you can't say how things will work out.

As if to confirm this, there has been little pause between the end of the How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful tour and the release of three songs from the Final Fantasy XV soundtrack, (Too Much Is Never Enough, a cover of Ben E. King's Stand By Me, and I Will Be), and and on Friday 26th August there came the release of film soundtrack song number four: The epic, majestic, and utterly heartbreaking 'Wish That You Were Here', which appears on the soundtrack to Tim Burton's forthcoming new film Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children. The film is released on 30th September 2016.

As with both Twilight and The Great Gatsby, Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children is a literary adaptation. In this case, it is adapted from the young adult novel by Ransom Riggs, a New York Times bestseller, which has been translated into 40 languages. There have been two sequels (Hollow City and Library of Souls), and a related book, Tales of the Peculiar, that might be described as either a tie in or a prequel which arrives on 3rd September.

I haven't read the book, but I definitely will be doing as it sounds like a riveting mixture of fantasy, time travel, gothic fairytale and bildungsroman, all of which I love. Descriptions of the plot reminded me of both Helen Cresswell's classic Moondial and Harry Potter, but I suspect I'm being a bit simplistic there.

The trailers for the film are very atmospheric (as you would expect from Tim Burton) and matching the gothic and charmingly off kilter cinematography of Tim Burton with the equally gothic and charmingly off kilter music of Florence + The Machine does feel like something of an obvious match.
This is the man who commissioned Siouxsie and the Banshees back in 1992 to write 'Face To Face' as the soundtrack to an encounter between Batman and Catwoman in Batman Returns.

When discussing the collaboration with Burton, Welch has said that she had wanted to work with him for a long time.
I actually sent him a note about six years ago. I was in Australia on tour there for the first time and visited an exhibition of all his work. I wanted to leave him a message and all I had on me was an x-ray of my hand, as I had just broken my finger. So I wrote on the x-ray and gave it to the gallery to pass on and never knew if he got it. When we met for the first time, he told me it's been hanging up in his office ever since. 
The resulting song, 'Wish That You Were Here' is epic in both scale and length, complex, heartbreakingly sad, and overall full on beautiful. This sounds somewhat over the top, but it really is lovely. How indicative it will be of future Florence + The Machine songs, only time will tell, but in subject matter it appears to have been firmly rooted not just in Riggs novel, but in the isolation from friends and family endured by the touring artist. As such, it is equally as much a product of the 2015-2016 How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful tour as of Riggs and Burton's work.

Florence + The Machine have come a long way from Welch's drunken debut in Kings Cross, acoustic gigs in lifts and parks to full on stadium art rock. But, from a fan point of view, it's been a great journey, and continues to be. What will happen next? Only time will tell...

Note: This blog post was originally published on 14th August 2016 and discussed 'Heavy In Your Arms', 'Breath of Life' and 'Over The Love'. It was updated on 29th August 2016 to include discussion of the recently released 'Wish That You Were Here'

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Chaleur Humaine

There are so many reasons to love Héloïse Letissier, aka Christine and the Queens... Let me count but some of the ways...

She has a glacial purity to her voice that is set off perfectly by her excellent dancing

She took French Elle to task for airbrushing her cover shot last year

She writes great, stylish, pop music with brains

Chaleur Humaine, an Anglo-French re-working of Letissier's 2014 French album of the same name, mixes endearingly glitchy electro with insanely catchy riffs & hooks and an understated pop intimacy that reflects her intelligence and creativity.

Opening track 'iT' is one of the angriest, yet danceable to, album openers I've ever heard. Talking about 'iT' to Dazed earlier this year, Letissier spoke of a sense of "wanting to have a dick just to have an easier life". She clarified this by adding:
Now I wouldn’t write “iT”. I’d rather stay a woman and fight, and try to control this male gaze by wearing unsexualised suits and speaking about my own desire without worrying about being desirable on someone else’s terms.  
The song reflects the sense of sexual fluidity that runs through Letissier's work in her persona of Christine, the name Christine and the Queens being a nod to the drag queens who looked after a fragile and heartbroken Letissier on a three week trip to London from her native France. She has variously described herself as bisexual and pansexual, but seems at pains to present a studied androgyny in her image as Christine. This is both intriguing and refreshing.

Sonically, the album ranges from the ferocity of 'iT' to the stripped down simplicity and poignancy of 'Night 52', via the almost Tom Tom Club esque 'Tilted' (think 'Genius of Love' rather than 'Wordy Rappinghood') and urban glitch of 'No Harm Is Done', a collaboration with Tunji Ige.

Despite parts of the album originally appearing in 2014, it feels like a very contemporary album, with a strong sense of urban unease reflected in it's conflicting sense of strength and fragility. Chaleur Humaine (which babel fish translates as 'Warmth') if there is any justice, should already be on it's way to becoming a modern pop classic (the album was released in the UK in March) and, I hope, a strong contender for album of the year.