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Florence + The Machine, ‘Ceremonials’
The dog days are over for Florence Welch, so it’s onto a different animal: this behemoth of supersized songs that sound big enough to swallow the world whole. Eternal happiness is still her resting-place – how fitting, then, that she so memorably provided the music to Julia Roberts’ eating, praying and loving – but to get there she’s fending off devils (“Shake It Out,” an anthemic single strong enough to rid evil spirits) and falling into darkness (“Only If For a Night”). More than on “Lungs,” her debut that established quite literally that she had one hell of a set, Welch and producer Paul Epworth push her theatrical dramatics – often built with a swirl of chamber sounds and choirs designed for Welch’s fire-hose wail – into a mystical wonderland of ancient eeriness that’s riff with satanic imagery, childhood urban legends and real-life crazies. You know it’s only a matter of time before there’s a musical. “Never Let Me Go,” easily a career-best ballad, is like the very water she sings of: piano, or the calm before the storm, busts into a crashing chorus that’s overwhelmingly breathtaking. “Spectrum” spectacularly follows Annie Lennox’s lead, and “No Light, No Light” gets bigger even when you don’t think it can. “Ceremonials” is that rare sophomore album that exceeds its debut, both on a song-by-song basis but also in its intriguing concept of angels and demons, imagery that she imparts to powerful effect. When the ethereal optimism of Enya-on-steroids “All This & Heaven Too” comes sweeping in at the album’s end, there’s no denying the power of this Machine. Grade: A
Coldplay, ‘Mylo Xyloto’
Intentionally or not, Coldplay sums up their love/hate relationship with humankind on their latest album’s “Us Against the World,” something that never seemed truer than with this polarizing project. Before this, their fifth album and a follow-up to one of their best, 2008’s “Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends,” the foursome was all about soft-rock odes to lost love and the color yellow. Things are brighter than ever on their nonsensically named “Mylo Xyloto,” one big hug that’s all-out pop with synth, Auto-Tune and Rihanna. They ride in on a rainbow with the first full tune “Hurts Like Heaven,” a shimmering, speed-sung song that’s a high even opium couldn’t give you. They keep that idealistic mood running through much of the rest: Life’s-what-you-make-it mantra “Paradise” takes on a synth crunch that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Kanye West album, “Charlie Brown” is about living it up (and stealing cars), and it’s easy to appreciate the message in even the cheesiest of songs: “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall” essentially tells you to turn that frown upside down. Whereas, for the most part, piano was Coldplay’s go-to instrument in their bummed-out days, they’re busting out the big guns – lots of guitars – for a glossy sound that further aligns them with the pimps of pop (though not even West himself could do much to help the Rihanna co-teamed “Princess of China”). Their biggest fault? Hallmark corniness like “Life goes on, it gets so heavy,” lyrics that frontman Chris Martin has recently admitted to be a “bit shit.” Good thing the rest of the album isn’t. Grade: B-
Lauren Alaina, ‘Wildflower’
The Season 10 “American Idol” runner-up’s debut sounds like something from a singer still in high school. She kisses off boys on “I’m Not One of Them,” does a song for mom (“Like My Mother Does,” the first single) and drops a Dixie Chicks reference (we feel so old!). Ditties, written by some of Nashville’s best and produced by ladies’ favorite Byron Gallimore, are perfectly fit for this 17-year-old, a cross between Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson. But Alaina transcends her teen age with an emotional interpretation of one of the album’s primo songs, “The Locket,” a heartbreaker that’s “The Notebook” set to song.
Class Actress, ‘Rapprocher’
Fans of Elizabeth Harper, a Brooklyn singer-songwriter known by the moniker Class Actress, probably didn’t see this coming: a chic set of cosmopolitan ’80s funk-pop. And why? Because Harper was a folk singer. She doesn’t let her self-proclaimed “playboy pop” – a sophisticated sound that’s synth driven – override her inviting voice, one that always seems to be telling you a secret. It’s that charm and humanity extending over the 11 tracks that help it along, even after it starts to drag halfway through. The best comes early with “Keep You” and its airy falsetto on the chorus; “Bienvenue” drops glam for some lo-fi indie, and it’s a welcome reprieve. Not bad for a folkie.