Florence + the Machine are, in theory at least, pretty ideal candidates for an installment of MTV Unplugged. Listening to the official CD releases of these shows, artists like Neil Young hew fairly close to their on-record sound (rendering the discs rather inessential), while artists like Alice in Chains and Jay-Z were forced to operate slightly left of their centers, lending an appealing air of excitement to the corresponding discs. Florence Welch is a naturally gifted singer – always a plus in this setting – but her band’s music often hinges on a certain sonic catharsis. Their sophomore record, last year’s excellent Ceremonials, plumped the FATM recipe with extra layers of Arcade Fire aural cyclone and Annie Lennox space mystic, and the results were exciting; but can Florence replicate the x-factor that makes her songs so special in a stripped-down environment? The answer: kind of, but not really.
To be sure, MTV Unplugged sounds nice. Florence’s voice is front and center, growing from a heady coo to a chesty bellow in seconds flat, quavering and bellowing in all the right places; there’s a reason this band’s debut record was called Lungs, after all. And the urgent, melodic tunes in Florence’s arsenal retain their on-wax tension when their elements are stripped and replaced with laconic acoustic guitars and a string quartet. The problem is not with the songs; it’s the fact that they occasionally sound limp and undercooked without those stormy, galloping instrumentals to give them direction. With dimension removed from the equation, Florence is forced to turn to volume in order to shoulder the entire enterprise, and predictably, she cranks it up, drowning out a full gospel choir on the meditative pastoral “Never Let Me Go” as easily as she dwarfs an understated piano rendition of Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness”.
The setlist isn’t without its pleasures – the aforementioned “Never Let Me Go” sounds as heavenly here as it did on Ceremonials, and guest star Josh Homme sounds terrific on pleasant cover of “Jackson”. But, as awesome as Florence + the Machine sounds on record, and as immaculate as Florence’s wail is throughout, MTV Unplugged doesn’t boast any versions likely to supplant the originals; even massive hits “Dog Days Are Over” and “Shake It Off” never achieve liftoff. It’s a fine effort from an excellent young band, but it’s ultimately inessential.