Florence + the Machine continues the soaring year for nouveau Brit chick rockers on ‘Lungs;’ Dallas-bred N’Dambi is Badu to the bone on ‘Elephant’
5 out of 5 Stars
Florence + The Machine
Universal Island Records
4.5 out of 5 Stars
So far, this year has to be one for the ladies. Strong albums by new female artists have given 2009 a refreshing music perspective while adding levels of artistry that seasoned pros would kill for. (Whitney, are you listening?)
Florence + the Machine is part of this year’s British invasion of chick chic. Adele and Lily Allen broke the ground, but FATM joins Bat for Lashes and LaRoux as a musical troika offering beautifully constructed songs that push to a modern, crisp direction with respectful throwbacks to rock and soul.
FATM, the brainchild of Florence Welch, delivers a knockout debut with Lungs. It’s rare that an album with 13 songs from a newcomer can satisfy each time; Welch comes as close as possible to doing so.
"Dog Days Are Over" opens the album with a slow buildup into an infectious tune that relies on a strong rhythmic beat while Welch wails with a confidence beyond many musicians. The song alone defines the album’s journey but leaves enough open for welcome surprises.
The Machine is mostly a collective of her backing musicians, and despite varied lineups in each track (and even different producers), the album exudes cohesiveness: You would swear the music is coming from the same band throughout. FATM’s sound is percussion-heavy with enough refrain that it doesn’t suffocate any of the tracks. At times, they are used brilliantly in lighter form, like in "Between Two Lungs," a softer track where Welch shines vocally.
Welch’s voice doesn’t have the widest range but she never writes herself into songs that were mistakes. Her shifts are subtle; every so often, she does that Sarah McLachlan note split. Thankfully, it’s never overdone.
Instead, Welch sings with intensity that is a sophisticated balance between Courtney Love and Stevie Nicks, minus the grit. Her voice has a cool glacial strength used to hypnotic effect, especially in "Drumming Song" and "Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)."
It’s easy to give props for well-crafted tunes, but Welch also writes fascinating lyrics — quirky, but without the trap of new artists who seem like they are trying to impress the listener. Her writing voice is simple and thoughtful in the spiritual "You’ve Got the Love" and humorous in the brazen S&M romp, "Kiss With a Fist."
She even seems to tinker with lesbionic tendencies with "Girl With One Eye."
Although Lungs delves into pop, rock and even emo, FATM gives one of the best albums of the year, a gem that rocks with masterful complexity and rolls with some damn fine music.
What Florence + the Machine does at moving music forward with fresh perspective; N’Dambi does by reimagining old soul. The women may take different places on the musical spectrum, but their genuine devotion to creating good music is a happy parallel. N’Dambi’s fourth effort, Pink Elephant, shows how music can reflect the past and maintain a modern groove.
The Dallas-born singer appeared on Erykah Badu’s 1997 debut Baduizm and subsequently followed with her own release, Little Lost Girl Blues, in 1999. Her jazzy soul garnered acclaim in alternative markets and signified talent that with a little refining would produce some fine art. Elephant fulfills that.
Where Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings recreate old school funk and soul and Amy Winehouse relies on vintage R&B influence, N’Dambi keeps a smooth groove here that hints at the past, nods heavily to the neo-soul of the mid-’90s and displays savvy sophistication, as in "The One," a smoky-joint ready song with a rhythm that only needs to wade through its bass line.
This formula is prevalent as each song coasts along, giving the album a sexy chill. "Mind Blowin’" begs you to snap your fingers to the beat and sway with the flow while N’Dambi flitters between high notes and her natural register.
Despite everything that’s sexy about the album, it doesn’t rely on sex to sell it. Her songs vary from narratives of human life in the first track, "L.I.E., " to optimistic feel-good vibes about "Nobody Jones." She explores love and life without gimmick.
But don’t sell her romance short. "Ooo Baby" is a sensual epic that should be put in everyone’s arsenal of love-makin’ music.
At a playtime of 51 minutes over 12 songs, each track is wonderfully substantial. N’Dambi isn’t afraid to venture into the four-to-five minute-plus realm for a song.
Many play for a mere three, but all tunes here offer an actual arc from beginning to end and the longer the better. "Imitator" confesses her issues with her man and at five minutes, she paints a full picture.
Sure, Dallas has Erykah and Norah, but N’Dambi reminds us that she is right there with them in the best of strong female performers from here. In fact, with Pink Elephant, she might even be better.
Quit your whining — and start your wine-ing. This weekend, the 7th annual WineFest comes to Addison’s Cavanaugh Flight Museum, on Oct. 24 from 6:30 p.m. Then on Nov. 20, the French-American Chamber of Commerce of Dallas holds its Beaujolais Festival at the Hotel Inter-Continental.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 23, 2009.