Florence + The Machine’s rise to the top has been has been unexpected, not due to their quality but their unusual style. With the exception of their karaoke cover of The Source’s You Got The Love, it was not a particularly commercial album. Featuring luscious and dense instrumentation, with songs like Hurricane Drunk (a tribute to getting drunk in the presence of a former loved one), Drumming Song (a tribute to the unspoken electricity between a girl and a boy; “When they're standing in front of you and you can't breathe, can't think, can't do anything properly”) and Bird Song (a song about an altercation with a crime witnessing bird, presumably a metaphor) it was a fairly left field collection of indie-soul tunes, dense with gothic imagery and songs about mortality.
It topped the charts on 30th January 2010, having spent weeks hovering around the number two slot. To many, it marked one of the finest albums recorded by a female vocalist in years. After having had to choose between either the manufactured bubblegum of Girls Aloud, Sugababes, the manufactured agression of 'agaitators' like P!nk or Avril Lavigne, or the forced sexuality of someone like Rihanna, it was refreshing to hear a woman stripped of saccharine, to sing about Love rather than sex. Florence was riding high, but unbeknownst to many, this was not the first commercially released album she’d been a part of, and in some respects, it wasn’t even her best.
There’s very little known about Florence’s first proper band, Ashok. The internet is supposed to have bought us all closer together, removed barriers and destroyed life’s sense of mystery. But about the band Ashok, there is a haze of ignorance. Tumbleweed drifts slowly across their Myspace; it contains a couple of gushing reviews (naturally), a couple of tracks from the album, an influences list that ranges from Dave Brubeck to Rage Against The Machine and some photos of their instruments. No-one on the internet seems to talk about them.
|Chris' favourite guitar|
I was first introduced to Ashok whilst idly browsing the web for Florence rarities. There are several absolute gems that were not included on the album, and one that caught my ear was a song called Sunday. The first thing that caught my attention was the unusual style and instrumentation of the song. Instead of harps and orchestras (Florence’s musical staples) it instead features funky blues guitar and glockenspiel solo-ing. The second thing was the sound quality. Being in a band and an avid music listener, I’ve established over the years that most demo’s seem to demonstrate a large amount of unnaturally poor sound quality – presumably to keep people interested enough to buy the album when it’s finally released, whilst not replacing the paid for product with a free version. Whilst Sunday featured a bit of hiss, it was otherwise crystal clear.
Ears pricked, I set about investigating a bit more into the background of this particular demo, and discovered that it was in fact no demo; it was the third track off an album called Plans. Entranced by Sunday, I set out to obtain a copy of the album, and was astonished at what I found.
|Ashok - Plans|
There exists only one concrete piece of information in the world about Ashok; their album, Plans. And what a unique and fabulous statement it is. The first thing that hits you about the album is the melding of funk, soul, blues and hip hop that defines this record. Ashok is fortunate enough to feature not one, but two lead vocalists/lyricists – Leo Nathan rapping, and Florence Welch singing, as well as a stellar guitar player by the name of Christopher Lane. It sounds as though Florence and Chris were the first to meet. Florence used to sit around at Chris’ house at the age of 16, making up lyrics. Using this, it is possible to establish a time frame for the band.
|A younger Florence|
Florence was born in 1986 on August 28th, and so at the age of 16, the year must have been 2002. This must be when Ashok started. Their album Plans was released on the 9th of April, 2007 to an indifferent audience. Around this time, Florence started playing gigs with her friend Isabella Summer under the name Florence Robot and Isabella Machine. In December of 2006, Florence sang Etta James songs to Mairead Nash (of Queens of Noize) in a toilet, inspiring her to manage her. Mairead is now F + TM’s manager, and Isabella the keyboard player, so it’s fair to assume that at this point in time, the seeds of The Machine had been strongly sown. It sounds as though contracts had been signed for Ashok at this point, because her father has this to say in an article for the Daily Mail;
“Florence and her bandmates were 'spotted' by an old-school music manager and there was talk of a contract. 'Don't sign anything until we've had a chance to have a look at it,' we implored. 'Yeah, yeah,' said Florence - and went ahead and signed it.
That's where it all could have gone off the rails. She was 19 and miserable, in the wrong band, life signed away, career over before it had begun. Despite my misgivings, I became a bit of a rock dad, and phoned a friend who was a music lawyer.
It turned out the contract was only binding on Florence as part of the band, so all she had to do was resign. After that we paid a bit more attention.”
So obviously, in 2006 Florence quit the band Ashok, to bring about her own machine. It's hard to say what could have made her unhappy; her differences were unlikely to be musical, as Florence is known to be a big fan of hip hop and blues.
It seems as though Ashok tried to carry on for a while; they released a music video for Lean From The Middle, filmed with a Florence replacement by the name of Sorana Santos. It’s worth a watch if only to be shocked at Leo’s appearance (I must confess that from his voice, I’d assumed him to be black – how wrong I was) but it doesn’t seem as though much occurred following this. Their last update on Myspace was on the 25th January 2008, and a live performance of Franky Boy that was uploaded on Youtube on the 21st of the same month seems tired, uninspired and crucially, devoid of Florence. Tragically, there appears to be only one video on Youtube of Ashok featuring Florence – a gig at Brixton Jamm where Ashok had two songs recorded – Franky Boy and Always Ashok. These are definitely worth a listen, as the whole band seems to be on great form.
According to Massimo Alessio Zeppetelli (who has evidently had contact with the band), Leo decided to split the band once Florence had left, resigning Ashok to a small, untouched corner of the past.
|Florence walks away|
Regardless of all the turmoil, it appears that Ashok had managed to put aside their differences long enough to find the time to record an album.
The first track, A New Year’s Anxiety begins with a looped fiddle, a funky guitar riff and a boy and a girl singing in upbeat harmony. The dynamics between Florence and Leo are downright jaw dropping. Individually their voices are confident, with Florence exhibiting none of her trademark (and somewhat tiresome) howling. The interplay is exhilarating, with the pair sharing lines, trading lines and finishing each other’s sentences before leading into a fiddle solo. The only other contemporary band I can think of to feature a fiddle solo are Mumford & Sons, a dreary nu-folk band whose sound can only be likened to how I imagine it would feel to be too stoned in a wheat field being chased by zombie scarecrows. Ashok, somehow, pull it off and still look cool.
|Eight people in view on stage - and a ninth off camera|
The standout tracks on this album are numerous. Lean From The Middle starts off with one of the catchiest riffs ever heard in an intro, and features the intermittent percussive qualities of a cowbell! Leo sings the verse, while the two of them duet on the chorus, and once again the sound they create is sparkling. Florence’s vocals are silky smooth while the band maintains an energetic back beat. Funky is a word that comes up a lot in relation to this album, and the first half is most definitely funky. Sunday is definitely a highlight, as is Under The Thumb. Up to Gerry Gigolo, this album makes you want to bounce around. With jumpy guitar lines and stripped down drumming, it is hard to sit still. After the half way line though, it takes a surprising turn; Gerry Gigolo is the creepy tale of a male prostitute who hangs around old people’s homes, trying to peddle his wares and exposing himself. With jazzy piano, it comes across as the soundtrack to a twisted film noir. Florence imitates a pervy granny to great effect. “You can call me any time, I’ll be waiting by the phone. At the old folks home”.
Slo Tune sees Florence singing of “winning the losing race”, summoning an air redolent of Miss Havisham.
The final track on this album is truly unexpected. All Florence fans are familiar with Kiss With A Fist, the 3 chord indie rock track that gave many of us our first taste. Imagine if it had been recorded by Dexy's Midnight Runners. A rousing barn dance, complete with a horn/honky tonk piano duel at the end, is how Kiss With A Fist (amusingly, originally titled Happy Slap) was first imagined.
|Ashok perform to a pond + some people|
Overall, it is fascinating insight into the origins of Lungs, as well as being a fantastically strong piece of individual work. As with her later album, all the songs have a dark air about them, with talk of death and love the two most common theme’s running through the lyrical sphere. With a lighter, more upbeat feel than Lungs, Plans has become a popular album at social gatherings. The mix of rapping and singing is a strange one, but fortunately the pair recognise the game as a team one, and complement each other well. Florence’s impressive soaring range and Leo’s deep, rough delivery work well, never treading on each other’s sonic toes.
The album can be purchased from Amazon here, and it’s a purchase I thoroughly recommend you make.