Music

Florence + the Machine: MTV Unplugged

For a group like Florence + The Machine, the risks of playing in a stripped-down setting are exceptionally high, but as they display on MTV Unplugged, the rewards they serve through their masterfully reworked songs were worth the gamble.


Florence + the Machine

MTV Unplugged

Label: Universal Republic
US Release Date: 2012-04-10
UK Release Date: 2012-04-09
Amazon
iTunes

Playing an unplugged show is always a dicey prospect. The artists put themselves out there before an unforgiving audience, exposed without the safety net of their electric instrumentation to fall back on. It’s a hit-or-miss affair, turning one’s trademark sound inside-out. For a group like Florence + the Machine, the risks are exceptionally high, but as they display on MTV Unplugged, the rewards they serve through their masterfully reworked songs were worth the gamble.

The group’s studio recordings are largely defined by their bombast and lush arrangements. Their unique aesthetic balances Florence Welch’s delicacy with her fierceness, and while much of her oeuvre is conducive to a stripped-down approach, there was the danger that the vulnerability would crumble without the tempering of her orchestral support, that her passion would give way to histrionics. Thankfully, the group for the most part avoids succumbing to such pitfalls.

The acoustic performance serves as a showcase for Welch’s voice, a rarity in that it is as technically proficient (an understatement) as it is emotionally engaging. The ten-member choir, the Voices of Rivers, floats behind her, echoing a Gregorian chant or flitting about like an aural apparition, crafting the chamber pop atmosphere. The band’s gothic inclinations are at the fore here, the subdued vibe and skeletal instrumentation -— piano, harp, guitar, violin, drums -— bolstering the Nico-esque spookiness. In particular, Welch’s fixation with water is at its most fluid and engulfing, the music evocative of the surf sweeping in and carrying the listener away in an undertow. The finest display of this is in “Never Let Me Go”, a tale of either resignation or resilience, the refrain breaking like a wave then flowing back out to sea.

Following the lead of the most successful Unplugged performances, Welch and crew don’t attempt to lazily force their songs into an acoustic palette. Rather, they reinterpret each one, imparting them with new life and resonance. “Drumming Song” may be the most drastic and successful retooling, opening with Welch’s unaccompanied voice. The piece is downright chilling, the piano’s rhythm supplanting the titular instrument, building an anxious tension.

“Cosmic Love” also is a complete switching of gears. In this minimalistic setting, it ceases to be a rousing anthem and becomes a wholly more intimate experience. The impact of the formerly belted-out chorus (“No dawn, no day / I’m always in this twilight / In the shadow of your heart”) is amplified by being reduced to a plaintive croon.

Welch’s choice of covers is of particular interest, showing her skills as an interpreter isn’t limited to her own songs. The standard “Try a Little Tenderness” has the quality of Jeff Buckley’s approach to covers, yet the quirkiest (and most fun) track is certainly “Jackson”, penned by Jerry Leiber and Billy Edd Wheeler but popularized by Johnny Cash and June Carter. Josh Homme ventures from his Stone Age throne to duet with Welch, his own distinctive, cocksure vocals greatly complimenting those of his singing partner. The only downside of the song is that it is so short; it will certainly leave fans hoping for a future pairing of the two.

The lone misstep of the record is the rendition of “No Light, No Light”. It simply takes too long to get where it’s going, the song lumbering rather than steadily mounting in intensity. What should be a satisfying exorcism of simmering demons is lost. The piece simply needs the clanging drums and chugging rhythm its studio version is built upon.

This one blemish aside, Florence + the Machine’s performance deserves its spot in the upper echelon of MTV Unplugged shows.

9
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.

Books

90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.

Music

Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

‘The Avengers’ Offer a Lesson for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.

Music

Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.

Music

Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.

Books

First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?

Reviews

HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.

Music

Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.

Music

How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.

Music

Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.