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Florence + the Machine, Dance Fever ★★★★★
When an album arrives with a title like Dance Fever, you could be forgiven for expecting an outbreak of glitter balls, Spandex and disco anthems. But, for Britain’s most artily cerebral pop diva, Florence Welch, dance fever refers to a medieval mass psychosis that gripped the German town of Aachen in the 14th century, which saw people dancing until they collapsed and even died.
Choreomania (as the condition was termed) is the title of a song on the fifth album by that one-woman band Florence + the Machine. It is a whirling dervish of a track, driven by handclaps and a pulsing melange of violins, harp and electronics, stirring a giddiness more evocative of spinning around a maypole than pulling slick moves at Studio 54. Nevertheless, this fever has a contemporary edge.
“You said rock and roll is dead / But is that just because it has not been resurrected in your image?” Welch demands, as a female choir roar “Something’s coming!” like an assemblage of Wagnerian Valkyries. “Like if Jesus came back / But in a beautiful dress,” the singer mischievously adds.
When Welch first emerged on the London indie-rock scene in 2006, there was a lot of discussion about female artists asserting themselves in very male (and many would have said increasingly stale) musical territory. Like the sainted Kate Bush (to whom she has often been compared), there is something assertively feminine about Welch’s persona and imagery. She styles herself like a Pre-Raphaelite poster girl, and sings like a cross between a weaponised Joni Mitchell and a keening banshee, enveloping her extremely literate lyrics in fluttery, vibrato high notes before summoning the full lung-power of her ululating war cry.
On Dance Fever’s imperious opening track, King, Welch ponders her artistic ambition, rejecting traditional female archetypes (“I am no mother, I am no bride”) before declaring “I am king!” Proclaiming the male regal title sounds at once transgressive and joyously funny, its power emphasised when a monumental drum break is followed by the thunderous impact of her band piling in.
The sound throughout shifts sinuously between the delicate and the huge, a baroque blend of epic Gothic pop and melodic folk, its innate pop sensibilities maintained by two new (for Welch) co-writers and producers, the ubiquitous Jack Antonoff (Taylor Swift, Lorde, Lana Del Rey) and Dave Bayley of the breakout British band Glass Animals. Perhaps that professional pop framework had to be in place to stop Welch going completely off the deep end. Written and recorded during lockdown, Dance Fever wrestles with a palpable frustration, contemplating the sacrifice of domestic life for a creative existence in which songs are “like children begging to be born”.
Welch’s self-mythologising is extravagant, her poetic language overloaded, yet her lush music binds it all into something magical on songs that exploit explicitly female archetypes to examine her own psyche. Dream Girl Evil confronts reductive male fantasies, Cassandra uses Greek myth to question the personal cost of art, while Daffodil celebrates the rebirth of spring with a storming glam-rock ode to a flower. The circle of the album closes with the delicate hangover of Morning Elvis, a blowsy fever dream in which Welch explicitly compares herself to rock ’n’ roll’s original monarch. The king is dead. All hail the king! Neil McCormick
The Rolling Stones, Live at the El Mocambo ★★★☆☆
The story of The Rolling Stones’ two secret concerts at Toronto’s 300-capacity El Mocambo club in March 1977 is a chaotic and salutary yarn. At the time, the band was being battered by three existential threats: two external and one internal.
The external ones were punk and disco. Four months earlier, the Sex Pistols had released their debut single, Anarchy in the UK. Punk groups saw the Stones as part of the establishment, ripe for destruction. “Groups like The Rolling Stones are revolting,” the Pistols’ Johnny Rotten said. “They have nothing to offer the kids any more.” Meanwhile, disco music was rocketing in general popularity.
The internal threat – far more concerning – was Keith Richards. The Stones’ guitarist was in the throes of heroin addiction. He was, according to biographer Victor Bockris, at “rock bottom” at this time.
It was against this backdrop that the Stones organised the hush-hush shows at “El Mo”, a fixture of Toronto’s music scene. The idea was to record some tracks for a live album (which became Love You Live). The club was booked under the name of an actual band, April Wine, who were supported by an unknown group called The Cockroaches. Guess who they turned out to be?
Still, it’s a miracle the gigs happened. Shortly after arriving in Canada (long after his concerned bandmates), Richards was arrested for heroin and cocaine possession, which was upped to a charge of trafficking, carrying a potential prison term of many years. He made the shows but looked, according to Rolling Stone magazine, “as though he belonged in a hospital emergency room”. The Stones’ stint in Canada was given added spice by the hovering presence of Margaret Trudeau, wife of the then-Prime Minister Pierre (and mother of the current PM Justin), who’d started hanging out with the band. Her presence at the shows made the UK’s News at Ten.
Only four of the El Mocambo tracks ended up on Love You Live. So now, 45 years on and pristinely mixed by Bob Clearmountain, the full set from the March 5 show and three tracks from March 4 are being released. Clearly wanting to prove he had something to offer the kids, Mick Jagger adopts a Cockney snarl, laying into the critics at the front as though he himself were Rotten. Newish guitarist Ronnie Wood gets time in the spotlight, as does Billy Preston on keys. Richards’ playing is suitably raggedy. All Down The Line is rip-roaring, Crazy Mama swings like a beast (and even features some New Wave-y synth) and Fool to Cry is lovely.
Jamming during rehearsals for these shows, Jagger and Preston came up with Miss You, the Stones’ full-throated stab at disco, and it’s a shame that that’s not included. Plus, this is the Stones’ 12th live album. Do we need another one? Not really. Live at the El Mocambo is one for dedicated fans and completists, but it’s a fascinating snapshot of a band in transition – and great fun. James Hall
The Smile, A Light for Attracting Attention ★★★★☆
Movie-tension music. That’s the best way to describe the opening bars of The Smile’s first album. Given how anticipated this record is, it’s a fitting start.
A Light for Attracting Attention is the work of a year-old supergroup of rock juggernauts: Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, the band’s lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, and Tom Skinner, the drummer from jazz band Sons of Kemet. Initially recorded as a lockdown project, rather unsurprisingly it’s a confident debut. More surprisingly, it’s more more Radiohead-esque than Yorke and Greenwood’s usual side-hustles.
Much of the record has the same relentless, rolling beats and grunting vocals of the multi-award-winning band. It’s more abstract, though: rhythms are borrowed from funk and Afrobeats, tracks have elements of trippy electronica, and there are moments on it that feel so prog rock you could be getting wavy at the UFO Club in 1967. It’s all delightfully weird.
The first half is the strangest. Tracks jerk from bubbling basslines to haunting synths, and often end with a sudden stop, as though you were walking in and out of rooms of sound. Meanwhile, the back end is rippled with drums and guitar riffs. Both halves are laced together by sinister lyrics repeatedly chanted over songs, like mantras. The group take aim at the fake smiles of modern life’s liars: dodgy politicians and creepy powerful men (“sad f--ks”).
The Opposite is a highlight, energy-driven and groovy, while Thin Thing has opportunities for really indulgent slow headbanging, and Yorke’s falsetto on A Hairdryer makes your skin crawl (in a good way). It’s not all perfect: every so often, the tracks swing from sounding like impossibly cool, experimental rock to, er, Coldplay. Overall, however, this is guitar music at its most thrilling. What else would you expect from musicians of this calibre? Kate Lloyd
Kendrick Lamar, Mr Morale & the Big Steppers ★★★★☆
Teased since last summer, and anticipated for the five years that have passed since his Pulitzer Prize-winning last album, DAMN., Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar’s fifth album arrives as a hefty, double-disc, disclaimer-free treatise in which he unlocks epiphanies on masculinity, generational trauma, and the nuances and contradictions of the black community for which he has become an anointed spokesperson.
Mr Morale & the Big Steppers loosely follows the structure of a therapy section. Lamar is working through grief. It’s not specifically stated who for, but an educated guess might land on Nipsey Hussle, a fellow West Coast rapper who was shot and killed in 2019. Not that that’s the point: it’s Lamar who’s here to discover something.
After years of holding a mirror to the world, to show us structural racism and the widening cracks in civic society, Lamar now turns the looking glass on himself. His music, always shot through with a theatrical verve, has grown denser and more complex. Here, on the opening track alone, there’s plainchant, rattling jazz drums, incidental piano, cinematic strings, and waves and waves of multi-syllables. It would be exhausting if it wasn’t so invigorating. Does he, on occasion, bite off more than a four-minute song can swallow? Yes.
Does this matter? Not really. Because if you can look beyond the occasional ham-fisted blip – the command to “stop tap dancing around the conversation” that closes out the otherwise-astounding We Cry Together is the most egregious example here – then there’s so much reward. And since the compositions are often so rich and enthralling – rolling drums, thundering bass and silky-yet-staccato pianos on the Sampha-sung Father Time; the poised organs on Worldwide Steppers – the odd blip is no more than fleeting. People like Lamar because he takes big swings.
When Mother I Sober arrives, one track before the close, there’s the sense that both discs, and possibly five albums, have been building to this point – to a “breakthrough”, to borrow the therapist’s term. Over spare piano, and assisted by Portishead’s Beth Gibbons, Lamar recounts watching his mother being abused and follows the thread of generational trauma, refracting it through historic slavery, to land on the actions that have shaped his own life. The listener receives Lamar’s private epiphany in real time.
It’s masterful, tender, and utterly raw. The closing song, Mirror, ties the bow with soaring strings and the sense of a relieved grin stretching Lamar’s cheeks, as he sings “I choose me, I’m sorry”, and departs with a final piece of advice: “Do yourself a favour and get a mirror / That mirror grievance.” Will Pritchard