Monday, July 23, 2012

Can Florence + the Machine Survive Calvin Harris?

The last time I was in London, my friend Andy and I had a minor disagreement over Florence + the Machine. It was March of 2010, and Florence had just gotten into the UK Top 5 for the first time with "You've Got the Love." Andy insisted that Florence's remake was superior to the song that it covered, The Source featuring Candi Staton's "You Got the Love," which hit the UK Top 10 three times between 1991 and 2006 and was the last thing we heard at the end of the Sex and the City series finale in 2004. (I bought the Now Voyager Mix, the version used in SATC, during a trip to London in 1997 when it was in the Top 5 for the second time.)

I believe Andy's exact words were "Florence's version has more soul."

What?! Was he kidding me? More soulful than Candi Staton?

But the more I listened to the two versions back to back, the more I understood where Andy was coming from (though I still prefer Staton's more restrained approach, which makes her version sound more like a prayer and less like a love song). Despite, the newly grammatically correct title, Florence had a lot of soul. This Florence girl, I thought, must have some future ahead of her to even come close to out-souling someone like Staton, a gospel and disco legend who had a massive 1976 disco hit with "Young Hearts Run Free," and has been going strong ever since, though often too far below the radar.

This week I'm having another Florence + the Machine debate, this time with myself. The band, which is technically British singer-songwriter Florence Welch under an assumed group name, recently scored its first No. 1 UK single with "Spectrum," but it comes with strings attached. The version that's currently No. 1 for the second week isn't the original that appears on Ceremonials, Florence's second album, but a Calvin Harris remix re-titled "Spectrum (Say My Name)."

My first reaction was that Calvin Harris took the original track, slapped one of those generic dance beats onto its bottom, and watched it soar 103 notches to the top. So what? And then there was the similarity between the newly added subtitle and the title of Cheryl Cole's recent No. 1 single, "Call My Name," which was produced by Harris. I love Cole's song, but I never asked to hear Florence and the Machine in such a setting.

The more I listened to "Spectrum," though, alternating between the remix and the original, the more I started to get it. While the remix sacrifices some of that spacey, free-flowing thing that, for many, is a large part of Florence's charm, those very same qualities are why I like her music more than I love it. She's a great singer and certainly an interesting one, but her songs have a meandering shapelessness that causes my mind to wander, no matter how much yelping and shrieking she does.

Harris's remix tightens up the track to a brisk 3:38 (the original is 5:11), making it more palatable and far less "Dog Days Are Over." By extending the driving beat to the verses, he provides a dramatic musical counterpoint to Florence's lower-register vocals while building momentum throughout the entire song. Musically, Harris's work here is not as magical and inspired as his contribution to "We Found Love," his recent collaboration with Rihanna, but then, nothing he's done since, including his solo hit Feels So Close," is.

"Spectrum (Say My Name)" is more on par with "Missing," the 1994 Everything But the Girl track that Todd Terry remixed into an international smash. The success of Terry's reworking of "Missing" led Everything But the Girl down a new sonic path, which resulted in some of the duo's best work.

If having a No. 1 hit ends up having a similar effect on Welch's music, I'm all for it. The last thing pop needs is another dance diva, but for an artist as out there as Florence, sometimes the most daring thing you can do is get with the beat (without handing over your identity completely -- see Nicki Minaj). I was always disappointed that after Armand Van Helden's dance overhaul of Tori Amos's "Professional Widow," which sent that Boys for Pele track to UK No. 1 in 1996, Amos didn't choose to explore that path further.

Hopefully, Florence will. Now I'm even more excited to hear what she does next.

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