Florence + the Machine: How Big How Blue How Beautiful (Album Review)

Florence + the Machine’s third studio release, How Big How Blue How Beautiful is possibly the most aptly titled album ever with its big, brassy orchestral sound, beautiful vocals and wistful, poetic lyrics.

I am teaching myself how to be free.

Lungs and Ceremonials are among my all-time favorite albums and this new collection is a very worthy followup. I purchased the Target version of the album (yes a physical CD in a brick and mortar store!), which contains two exclusive additional tracks plus the Deluxe Edition’s four bonus tracks for a total of eighteen new Florence songs.

How Big How Blue How Beautiful bursts open with the singles “Ship to Wreck” and “What Kind of Man” before sliding into the gorgeously symphonic title track.

Standout tracks “Queen of Peace” and “Various Storms & Saints” recall the exquisite, operatic pop drama of Ceremonials before “Delilah” dances in.

The demo “Which Witch” is such a dazzling, intricately constructed piece of wonderment, it boggles my mind that it’s only a bonus track. It’s unfathomable that a song this good was not considered worthy of inclusion on the final album tracklist. Whether you purhase the Deluxe Edition as a whole or the individual mp3, you need to hear “Which Witch.”

The two Target bonus tracks are lovely, especially the finale “Conductor.” The song uses a symphony metaphor for a turbulent relationship and ends with the line “I am the orchestra, the conductor too. My heart is a concert hall and I filled it with you.”

With three magnificent albums under her belt, Florence Welch and her machine have cemented their place as my favorite modern band.

Florence + the Machine Official Site

Brandi Carlile: The Firewatcher’s Daughter (Album Review)

It’s here! And it’s magnificent! Brandi Carlile’s fifth studio album, The Firewatcher’s Daughter, was just released via ATO Records and it sure is somethin’ else. Recorded almost entirely as first takes without any demoing and little rehearsal, The Firewatcher’s Daughter is an unparalleled display of musical brillance.

We throw around the word “wail” so easily when it comes to big voices, but Brandi’s wail is a true, heart-in-throat keen so full of emotion it sounds on the verge of breaking yet so strong it deftly bends every note to her whim. And her longtime collaborators Tim and Phil Hanseroth (a.k.a. “The Twins.”) are with her every glorious step of the way.

“Wherever is Your Heart,” “Beginning to Feel the Years,” “Wilder (We’re Chained)” and the string-accented “I Belong to You” are the kind of beautiful ballads that would tug heartstrings no matter who sang them, but Brandi’s supernatural voice lifts them up to a celestial realm.

The album’s first single, “The Eye,” finds Brandi reigning in her extraordinarily big voice for gentler, sun-drenched, pop-folk harmonies.

“Things I Regret” is a deceptively uptempo, high energy road song that quickly builds, gaining momentum like a steam engine til the roaring finale.

Then “Mainstream Kid” throws a quaking, blues-rock stick of absolute dynamite on the tracks and blows the whole thing to hell. This woman can make Hendrix, Skynyrd, Ram Jam and Nirvana sound like soft jazz!

“Alibi” stays at full throttle rock level, but there’s an unexpected, subtle undercurrent of summery, California pop to the chorus melody that gives it a catchy and slightly disorienting swirl.

“The Stranger at My Door” is an intoxicating, mesmeric gulp of noir, a phantasmagoric masterpiece that bends the mind as much it does genre…like Johnny Cash fronting Led Zeppelin in a David Lynch movie then Trans-Siberian Orchetra jumps on stage to close with a freakin’ rock riff of “When Johnny Comes Marchin’ Home Again!” It is one of the greatest, most deliciously unusual songs ever constructed. Wow, just wow.

The album closes with a fitting cover of The Avett Brothers’ “Murder in the City.”

There is truly no one like Brandi Carlile at her fierce, brilliant best. She’s somehow simultaneously the heir to The Beatles, Janis Joplin and The Man in Black. I’ll be shocked if The Firewatcher’s Daughter isn’t my #1 album come December.

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Brandi Carlile Official Site

The Vespers: Sisters & Brothers

The Vespers will release their third independent album, Sisters & Brothers, on February 10th. A “Southern Folk Pop Family Band” comprised of two sets of siblings, The Vespers sound like no one else. Their honeyed harmonies are layered over lush folk instrumentation with songs ranging from heartfelt and genteel to fierce and bombastic.

The standout tracks are the thunderous, dramatic opener “Break the Cycle” and the delicate exploration of faith in the modern age “Cynical Soul.”

Other highlights include “We Win,” “New Kids,” “Brothers & Sisters,” “The Curtain” and “Please.”

You can download a free, legal mp3 sample including tracks from the new album at Noisetrade.

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The Vespers Official Site

D’Angelo: Black Messiah

Now this is an album. You see, once upon a time, instead of auto-tuned pop puppets churning out vapid radio singles, there were artists who took years, sometimes decades, to conceive, create, collaborate and masterfully hone their music-making craft before even stepping one tiptoe into a studio to record an album. That is why and how there is a Kind of Blue, a Tapestry, a Zoso, a Purple Rain, a Ten, The Archandroid and, now, a Black Messiah. D’Angelo has gifted the world with a work of Shakespearan proportions in an era of penny dreadfuls.

in a world where we all circle the fiery sun,
with a need for love, what have we become?
tragedy flows unbound and there’s no place to run

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Fiona Bevan: Talk to Strangers

Fiona Bevan’s debut album, Talk to Strangers, more than lives up to the promise of its first single. The British singer-songwriter’s quirky soul-pop style falls somewhere between Sheila Nicholls, Joanna Newsom and Corinne Bailey Rae, but these are tenuous reference points at best. Fiona is really carving a niche of her own here.

Fiona’s rich lilt and jaunty instrumentation are particularly charming on “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Slo Mo Tiger Glo” and the lovely “Us and the Darkness.”

The standout track “The Machine” dives into murkier, funkier waters.

Other highlights are Fiona’s exquisite, multi-faceted vocal on “Monsoon Sundance,” the enchanting, buoyant “Pirates and Diamonds” and the simpler beauty of “Forwards.”

I expect Fiona Bevan’s Talk to Strangers to make it on my best of the year list for 2014.

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Fiona Bevan Official Site