Florence and the Machine
The Dance Fever of this record’s title isn’t a cheesy ’80s TV show, nor is it a sign that Flo’s gone disco.
No, it stems from Florence Welch’s fascination with "choreomania," the phenomenon of groups of people dancing until exhaustion or injury — even death — in Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries.
There’s even a song on FATM’s fifth album called Choreomania, in which Welch sings of how she just "kept spinnin’ and danced myself to death," and she’s intimated in interviews that it’s related to the release she found in simply dancing during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, when all of us wondered if we’d be able to gather and dance to live music ever again.
That’s the crux of the 14 tracks (12 songs and two short interludes) which make up this record, which began in late 2019 and completed last year. As Welch tried to write and record, she found herself — as she sings on album-opener King — questioning whether she even wanted to continue with the pressure that comes with being a performing artist.
Before she could really work out her answer, her very existence as a working musician was taken from her, so Dance Fever plays out as a sort of fable, she has said, in which she grapples with the notion that what causes her the greatest anxiety also brings her the greatest joy.
The songs and music are mostly uplifting in tone, ranging from the anthemic-yet-satirical album-opener King to the bittersweet, acoustic The Bomb and the choral tones of Heaven Is Here, but the theme of conflict persists in lines such as "Sometimes I wonder if I should be medicated," from Free, or "I came for the pleasure but I stayed for the pain," from Back in Town.
The album’s most danceable song, My Love, also boasts its starkest lyric, a pandemic-inspired confession of staring at blank pages as streets and cities empty of life.
Ultimately, though, the simple fact of Dance Fever’s release indicates the path Welch has chosen, and she and her bandmates have created yet another stirring collection of rich, huge-sounding pop songs that will be hard to resist, even if they may be painful to parse. ★★★★ out of five
Stream these: King; Back in Town; My Love
— John Kendle
Wilco goes country as only it can on Cruel Country, an immensely rich 21-track, roughly 80-minute deep dive into America that is a raw and engaging take on our tumultuous times.
For longtime fans of Wilco, Cruel Country, which comes out Friday, feels in some ways like an extension of the rock band’s Mermaid Avenue collection with Billy Bragg that were based on lyrics of Woody Guthrie. But Cruel Country, a reference more to the subject matter than the musical style, is very much Wilco’s take on America as it currently exists.
"I love my country stupid and cruel/red, white and blue," lead singer and songwriter Jeff Tweedy sings on the title track.
While death hangs heavy over Cruel Country, the record offers solace in music and community.
"All you have to do is sing in the choir with me," Tweedy sings in as much an invitation as an aspiration.
It’s fitting that the tracks were recorded live by the band playing together at Wilco’s loft in Chicago, with minimal overdubs. That gives Cruel Country a raw, real feel that’s befitting the songs. Tweedy described the method as "messy. Like democracy."
Country Song Upside-Down perhaps comes closest to stating Wilco’s thesis for Cruel Country.
"I found a song upside-down," Tweedy sings. "A country song/Without a doubt/Dying sky and water/Rainbow/Flickering out."
The record comes on the heels of Wilco celebrating the 20th anniversary of its most revered record, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. While the band looked back to celebrate that milestone, it’s maybe no accident that it quickly followed up its anniversary shows with a completely different-sounding genre-bending record.
As Tweedy writes in the liner notes, Cruel Country is an attempt to "challenge our affections for things that are flawed."
Cruel Country isn’t all cruel and it isn’t all country music, either. But it’s likely to stand the test of time and still be talked about 20 years from now. ★★★★1/2 out of five.
Stream these: Country Song Upside-Down, Tired of Taking it Out on You
— Scott Bauer, The Associated Press
Florian Hoefner Trio
Pianist-composer Florian Hoefner used the constraints during the pandemic to extend his compositional time. The result is this fascinating album with Andrew Downing on bass and Nick Fraser on drums.
Hoefner was stunned by a documentary that showed a Chilean desert where rain might only fall every 10 years. When it does come it awakens dormant seeds that turn the desert within days into an explosion of stunning colour and beauty. He says, "This is what it has felt like to be a jazz musician over the last two years. Waiting and waiting for the bloom."
The bloom has definitely come with this release. Almost all the music is Hoefner’s, with carefully crafted intensity that communicates its story with smoothness. He writes about frequently using the repeated riff or pedal point as an underpinning for improvisation that hints at his minimalist influences. Like throwaway lines in a clever play, this music rewards deeper listening. Downing and Fraser work beautifully with Hoefner and the concept of the music.
Born in the German state of Bavaria, Hoefner has been contributing greatly to the Canadian jazz scene since 2014. His worldwide influences inform his music with resulting melodic beauty and serious rhythmic base. Fraser is simply one of the best drummers anywhere.
Hoefner has a lovely touch, especially in his solo intro to Neptune. Intensity and emotion without bombast is always endearing, and the trio delivers that reality throughout. The opening track, Between the Lines, is a beautiful setup for the album; thoughtful, melodic and compelling. The title track is evocative and gives Downing full sway in the intro and opening solo. The track Shifting Baseline Syndrome is a neat title giveaway.
The piano trio is a jazz staple that is constantly moving and developing in new ways. This album is a wonderful example of that freshness. Keep blooming. ★★★★1/2 out of five
Stream these: Shifting Baseline Syndrome, Shelter
— Keith Black
Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien
Mendelssohn Violin Sonatas
Russian-born violinist Alina Ibragimova joins forces once more with French pianist Cédric Tiberghien, with this recent release by Hyperion featuring three early violin sonatas by Felix Mendelssohn.
The Romantic era composer’s ambitious Violin Concerto in F major, MWV Q26 immediately displays the soloist’s sensitive artistry during its opening movement, Allegro vivace. The duo, clearly in tune with each other, also treat listeners to a decidedly more introspective central Adagio that begins with the pianist’s richly voiced introduction setting the tone for the violin to follow. The artists then throw sparks during an effervescent finale, Assai vivace, which further showcases Ibragimova’s technical prowess.
Also included is Mendelssohn’s sole published work dated 1838, Violin Concerto in F minor, Op. 4," which provides a welcomed contrast, including inherently greater dramatic intensity, to the album’s two bookends both composed in the key of F major.
Ibragimova delivers a plaintive solo at the top of its opening Adagio – Allegro moderato, with her lyricism and singing tone now at full voice, underscored further by the subsequent Poco adagio, before the three-movement work’s rousing finale, Allegro agitato.
Last but not least, Violin Concerto in F major, MWV Q7 serves further testament to the duo’s innate understanding of the composer’s idiosyncratic style, before rounding out with Violin Concerto in D, MWV Q 18, a deeply soulful, well-paced work that provides ballast to the other offerings. ★★★★ out of five
Stream these: Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in F major, MWV Q7.
— Holly Harris