Album Review: Florist - S/T
It was not intentional—at least not really, not at first anyway, that I spent a sizable portion of last year, and even some of this year, writing about both the “multitudinous nature” of an artist, and the idea of duality—whether it was a duality that was explored within the lyrics of the songs themselves, or the multitudes that either the songwriter—as a person, outside of their work, or the album as a whole, may contain.
And I find that I am perhaps unable to frame properly and then accurately write about the recently released, self-titled album from the indie folk outfit Florist, without returning to and writing about the notion of duality, and the idea of “containing multitudes.”
Because the album, as a whole—spread across two LPs, containing 19 tracks and running nearly an hour total—does, in fact, contain multitudes—the most apparent being how the band deliberately sequenced the material found housed within the four sides of vinyl. Florist, as a whole, alternates between the often extremely short and partially improvised experimental, instrumental noodlings and loops, and then the often gentle, hushed, primarily acoustic, and at times quite robust sounding indie folk—both more or less equally representing the collaborative nature with which the band was working, and how the album was put together in a time before the pandemic.
This alternating between sounds, or styles, within the whole also speaks to the duality found within the nature and the inherent diversity in the musical output of the band’s de facto leader, Emily Sprague.
Neither Florist, as a band, nor Sprague, as its primary lyricist and vocalist, need a compelling back story, or mythology—but there is one, regardless. Sprague founded Florist in 2013 after relocating from upstate New York to Brooklyn with friend and bass player Rick Spataro, eventually recruiting Felix Walworth on drums, and additional guitarist Jonnie Baker to round out the group.
After releasing an EP shortly after forming, Sprague was the victim of a hit-and-run accident while riding her bicycle—during her recovery, the band recorded and released two additional EPs, the last of which was issued through the well-regarded independent label Double Double Whammy—the imprint that would go on to release all of their full-lengths, beginning with 2016’s The Birds Outside Sang.
Sprague’s mother passed away in 2017; her death—and Sprague’s grief, informed both Florist’s beautiful, devastating second LP, If Blue Could Be Happiness, as well as directly inspired their third released under the Florist name but truly a solo album and reflection from Sprague, aptly named Emily Alone. It was also in 2017 that Sprague began recording and releasing ambient music under her own name—issuing three albums, the most recent being 2020’s Hill, Flower, Fog.
Florist, as an album, is not a place where Sprague’s duality, or the multitudinous nature of the kind of music she writes and performs, converges. Instead, and what makes it such a successful and thoughtful album, is how the record itself holds space for both—it eventually sounds effortless, but there is a kind of give and take created as the album unfolds, and I hesitate to say, upon early listens through, that it is difficult, or inaccessible, simply based on the juxtaposition from song to song, but it does take a small amount of patience to allow yourself to understand what the album’s intention is, and how the album works—then allowing yourself the chance to ease into and then immerse yourself in its beauties, oddities, and complexities.
And, of course, it can be intimidating at first—both the conceit of the album, but also the sheer scope of it in terms of being 19 tracks total, evenly spread out across four sides of vinyl. And what becomes clear, even upon my earliest listens of Florist, is that it is the kind of album that, yes, you can maybe enjoy bits and pieces of outside of the context of it as a whole, but it is relatively obvious the intent is to listen, uninterrupted, from beginning to end. Bookended with two instrumental, experimental pieces, Florist is constructed to gently welcome you into the atmosphere that it conjures, and then, as it concludes, just as gently sends you off into the night.
There are ten instrumental pieces shuffled across the landscape of Florist—often placed in between what I hesitate to call “actual songs,” but songs that feature vocals and the group playing traditional instruments. And in the way the album is sequenced, it might be too easy for a group to use these instrumental, experimental compositions as interludes to get from one “song” to the next—but the thing about Florist, as an album, taken as a whole, is that one is not more important, or more of the focus, than the other. These ambient pieces are just as crucial to the album as the songs with Sprague’s lyrics.
The ambient, instrumental pieces are also all, impressively, woven into the album as standalone tracks—at no point across Florist’s 19 tracks does one of these shorter, experimental pieces wind up connected to the beginning, or the end, of one of the proper songs—they exist, in a sense, in their own world that orbits the other material on the album, both intersecting but never ceasing the forward momentum. And there is the risk, in an ambitious record like this, that shuffling an almost evenly split amount of indie-folk leaning songs with a collection of instrumental curiosities may create difficulties for the listener in terms of taking them out of the album, temporarily, when the switch occurs—but that simply isn’t the case. It can be jarring, yes, and is certainly an album that, even after multiple listens through, is still full of surprises in terms of that tonal shift. Still, if anything, the ten instrumental tracks serve as brief respites from the always thoughtful, but at times emotionally heavy lyricism found throughout the songs featuring vocals.
As is often the case with well-made experimental, ambient, or instrumental music, a majority of the pieces found within Florist are extraordinarily beautiful, somber, and hypnotic—a balancing act you can hear from the very first track, “June 9th Nighttime,” which over the course of three minutes, is a prelude of sorts for the album that will follow and constructed around a perpetually bent, shifted, and warbled progression of notes that continues to repeat—at times, a little mournful or downcast, and elsewhere, disorienting and jittery.
The mood or aesthetic of these ambient and instrumental pieces is never “dark” per se, but there is a noticeable tonal shift throughout as they appear—“Duet for Guitar and Rain,” which is roughly 90 seconds of precisely what you think it would be comprised of has a borderline eerie and ominous shadow hanging over the way the electric guitar strings are gently and firmly plucked in succession; “Duet for 2 Eyes” twinkles and shimmers—it’s warm and inviting in the way both antiquated, dilapidated sounding synthesizers oscillate back and forth into one another, creating a beautiful, gentle swirling sensation that you could listen to for a lot longer than the time it is given on the record.
More or less evenly sandwiched throughout Florist are the instrumental pieces that continue to build off of one another’s theme—“Bells,” given three distinct parts, are among the most compelling of these tracks on the record. The first part is the shortest, with each additional part just slightly longer.
I do not as much now as I once used to, but I used to listen to many ambient, experimental, and instrumental artists—actively seeking out new ones through combing various corners of the internet. As with so many genres I was interested in, it became increasingly difficult to keep up with it in following all of the artists I once discovered and attempting to find compelling new ones to listen to.
I used to also write a lot more about ambient or experimental music, but it became increasingly difficult to do with any kind of thoughtful grace. You do not have lyrics to quote and then analyze the way you do with contemporary popular music, and you often have instruments making untraditional sounds, or compositions as a whole, not adhering to traditional song structures.
And so it is difficult to accurately do justice to how entrancing these pieces included on Florist are, specifically all three parts to “Bells.” The first, arriving as the album’s fifth track, introduces the off-kilter, tumbling melody from a dusty, broken-down keyboard. It’s warbled—not menacing, but unsettling in the tone itself, like something you’d hear out of a Downward Spiral-era Nine Inch Nails track. And each time “Bells” returns in other, further along, parts of the record, there are just a few more layers piled on top of this stumbling, wonky keyboard melody—chimes, a jittery, secondary keyboard sound that clatters of the top of it, the occasional bass drum thud.
It is, again, challenging to write about music like this with any kind of thoughtful grace without falling back into the habit of talking about how evocative the piece winds up being—if anything, these ten tracks found within the record are examples of just how fearless as a band, and confident in each other, Florist are—daring to push themselves to this place of uninhibited experimentation and figuring out innovative ways to weave these seemingly unrelated fragments into the fabric of something larger.
And it was earlier this year, in the spring and into the early portion of the summer, when I began to ruminate, perhaps more than I had before, about what, exactly, “indie rock” meant in 2022—and what I wanted out of music that could be classified in that genre.
And there is a space, of course, where the elements, or parts, to what I want from a band that could be categorized as “indie rock” converge to create that sound, and one could, and perhaps successfully if they were so inclined, to make the argument that Florist is “indie rock,” though I would respectfully disagree. Musically—specifically looking at the instrumentation of the group’s 2017 album If Blue Could Be Happiness, and the nine songs on Florist that include the full band performing, Florist leans far more into a kind of idiosyncratic folk—sure, indie folk if you must—sound than anything else.
There is a meticulousness to the way these songs are presented on Florist—the detailing, though, is designed to give the album almost an improvisational feeling—loose enough for there to be the freedom to explore if the song heads in that direction, but structured enough that, in the core, there is still a song that follows a more traditional verse/chorus/verse organization. With the album being primarily recorded within a screened-in porch in a house the band also lived in, the organic nature of the songs comes through almost immediately on “Red Bird Pt. 2 (Morning),” and remains vibrant throughout the additional eight s
songs that include Sprague’s lyrics and vocals.
“Red Bird” is among the most directly gentle songs included on Florist—with no percussion featured, the rhythm is subtly conjured through the delicate acoustic guitar string plucks, the warm atmospherics from keyboards, and additional, processed guitar tracks, and a bass line that slowly coasts underneath. And that does not imply that other songs lack a gentleness or delicate nature. Still, the deeper you go into the album, the more robust and layered the instrumentation and arranging of the songs becomes—creating small moments of tension or restraint that are never really released completely, but become slightly more relaxed as the rest of the band finds their way into the song, like the slow-burning “Organ’s Drone,” which finds a little more enthusiasm, or at least is a little lighter than how it began once the steady rhythm from the drum arrives, as well as the welcoming glow of an antiquated, glistens of a keyboard.
Within Florist’s first half, the group is at their jauntiest, or most rollicking, on “Spring in Hours,” which clips along at a faster pace than any of the other tunes on the record, and is structured around the dizzying, intricate acoustic guitar playing, the very crisp production on the drums, and the surprising (and welcomed) inclusion of horns, appearing subtly and almost atmospherically throughout the song’s six minutes.
The overall mood, or aesthetic of the pieces on Florist that are not ambient or instrument is never “dark,” per se, but as the album moves beyond its second half, I found I wound up using the word “eerie” in my notes to describe two of them—“River’s Bed,” and “Sci-fi Silence.”
“River’s Bed,” like so many of the songs on Florist, shifts and grows as it is unfolding, so it becomes much less “eerie” by its conclusion than it does as it opens—beginning with the icy, swirling, ominous sound of string instruments circling just on the perimeter, with an equal swirling and ominous acoustic guitar intro that does quickly resolve itself into a contemplative strum that finds a way to remain pensive the entire time; it is joined eventually by a swooning melody in the chorus, then percussion that falls somewhere between shuffling and stomping, and low, buzzy synthesizer tones that, near the end, seem like they are on the cusp of blasting off or the band is on the verge of losing control, but they never do, and the song finds its quiet resolution.
And perhaps it makes sense that a song named “Sci-fi Silence” would begin with a series of wonky, somewhat dated-sounding synthesizer blips and tones—one of them bordering on sounding playful, or whimsical, the other a little eerie or creeping, and both of them serving as a dramatical sustained intro to the song itself, which eventually arrives through a hushed, gently caressed acoustic guitar, and icy tinkling of piano keys. It is among the most stunning pieces on Florist, because it picks up unexpected, spilling over with a kind of somber, palpable beauty and grace.
As surprising as “Sci-Fi Silence” in the way the song eventually grows, or the turns it takes while unfolding, is “43,” which arrives just slightly after the album’s halfway point—surprising, and interesting, perhaps because of how the song itself is produced, with percussion that is both brushed and a little muffled, and also quite thick in how it reverberates throughout the mix. Of all the “songs” on Florist, “43” is by far the dreamiest—slow and often woozy, the song spins around itself through the passing sounds of a warbled piano, ephemeral atmospheric tones floating in and out, and the most surprising thing of all in the form of a searing electric guitar solo near the end.
With a lyricist who has used her words over the last five years to try and work through, as best as she has been able to, her grief, it is unsurprising the level of poignancy and thoughtfulness present in Sprague’s writing throughout Florist.
And within that poignancy and thoughtfulness, it should also be unsurprising just how honest, personal, and evocative Sprague is with her depictions—perhaps the most personal, at least in addressing her mother’s passing, in “Red Bird Pt.2 (Morning),” which is the first proper song on the album, and it is a continuation of the closing track from If Blue Could Be Happiness.
The first part of “Red Bird” is Sprague’s attempt at resolution, as much as she was able at the time, with her mother’s death—“So I feel like this,” she sings in a fragile voice that barely rises above a whisper. “We both feel so much—I know it from the years I’ve watched you live.”
“Red Bird” ends with not an acceptance, but with her observation of the truths within her circumstances. “And if I was afraid, you told me not to be,” Sprague explains. “But you were afraid.”
“I understand the birds now that I’ve learned some things. Yeah, I think.”
And I have been assured that there is a place where both grief and joy intersect, or can coexist within the same space. I have been assured of this, but it is something that I have spent years struggling to find, and have not yet been able to. And I mention this—this intersection of emotional extremes, because it is the place where the second part of “Red Bird” exists. Not the stark meditation on loss that its predecessor was, “Red Bird Pt. 2 (Morning)” is about remembrance in the face of that loss—the remembrance of small, often joyful moments that we, all too often, lose sight of when struggling with our grief.
“Red Bird Pt. 2” finds Sprague reminiscing through the early years of her parent's marriage—specifically through her father’s point of view in the days leading up to her birth. “You took her to the hospital and put her in the bed,” Sprague says matter of factly in her narrative. “I can only think about that day and what it meant when the doctor came out and said, ‘You have a daughter now.’”
Sprague beautifully merges her family’s past with its present as she and her father figure out how to move forward—“So comes another year now—did you ever think we’d both be back here looking out that this beautiful place,” she asks. “Seeing nothing but the glow of memory and a voice in our vision where she would be.”
If the first part of “Red Bird” ended short of acceptance, its second part, operating from within that place where grief and joy try, as they are able, to co-exist, Sprague has perhaps found as much acceptance as she can—“I can hear you singing still,” she says near the song’s end. “Wake up in the morning; let the morning come. She’s in the birdsong. She won’t be gone.”
And there is a darkness present throughout If Blue Could Be Happiness and Emily Alone—this should be unsurprising, given what informed and inspired those records. That darkness is something Sprague is still writing from, and about, on the material found on Florist, but it is balanced in a sense by the light trying to get through from the band, working as a whole, with the music that those lyrics are set on top of.
I hesitate, a least a little, to say that Florist, as a whole, is about “vibes,” or cultivating a vibe. But is it an album that is almost entirely too easy to become lost in—with that being said, the lyrics do not so much take a backseat, or are not as important in songs that include them, but they are delivered often with such a delicate nature that it takes several listens through for them to begin resonating truly. And even then, it is less about the lyrics to certain songs, and more about the often startling and thoughtful phrase turns that Sprague is capable of.
The phrase turns—the imagery she conjures isn’t always dark, or as bleak as Sprague’s lyricism was on If Blue Could Be Happiness, but it isn’t hopeful, either. Her poignancy and thoughtfulness are used to bring fragments, or moments, to life, regardless of their darkness or light. As the album’s first half progresses, there is a near desperation, or at least a visceral pleading, in “Spring in Hours”—“You are the kind of person I want to show it all to,” Sprague confesses. “I’m a dream—I’m a fraction,” she continues. “I’m somewhere between the near and the far of the butterfly’s wing.”
Later, near the halfway point, on “43,” she returns to the perhaps pastoral, familial scene she introduced in “Red Bird (Pt. 2)”—“I waited while the light leaked through the door,” she begins. “Over wooden floors, melody came flooding in. Our window was held open with a 2x4.”
“We had a home once, what a funny feeling,” she observes near the end of the song.
Sprague’s lyricism turns slightly darker, or at least much more personal, within Florist’s second half—in “River’s Bed,” she returns to similar territory as the songwriting found throughout a majority of If Blue Could Be Happiness—“It’s always the darkest things I keep inside my thoughts.”
On the Florist Bandcamp page, in the space allotted for a short biography, the band calls itself a “friendship project.”
And there is something inherently heartwarming, or endearing, about that—it is, of course, the kind of thing you can hear throughout Florist. It isn’t to imply that previous Florist albums lack that kind of connectedness and trust in one another, but in the vastness of this album specifically, the tightly knit nature of the band as both friends and four people working together toward the same goal, and working on the end goal in such an immersive way, truly does come through.
I find that, especially within the last nine or ten months, I have been thinking about the idea of intimacy in all its myriad forms and meanings—often thinking about the idea of intimacy within music.
And there is an intimacy to Florist—it’s the kind of thing you can hear within the album’s meticulous attention to detail, like the warmth that literally every track has, or even the sound of the crickets coming through as the band recorded within its makeshift studio in a screened porch. It is not as intimate of an affair as, say, Engine of Hell by Emma Ruth Rundle, which is perhaps the most unabashedly intimate and raw album I can recall hearing in a very long time, but in Florist’s warmth, it is welcoming—inviting you into the space it was created in and asking you to sit and not just listen, but be a part of the experience.
It isn’t a claustrophobic album by any means, but it is an album that has a closeness to it.
And there is an intimacy to Florist, and it is the kind of intimacy that is more subtle than the minutia you can hear coming through in the songs and vignettes found within. It is the intimacy, or at least the act of intimacy, between the members of Florist—a friendship project. There is a tightness, and a kind of confidence and trust the band members have with each other now that was not exactly missing on their last album as a four-piece band—but it is something that had the time to develop during the sessions for the album, and through the way, the band opted to make playing and recording a part of their “daily practice,” as Sprague put it in an interview, of living together in a rented home.
I hesitate to say Florist is a “fun” record, but you can hear that the band was having a lot of fun putting it together.
The past beats inside me like a second heart.
I wish I could remember the context with which I was first introduced to that quote—it would have been some point near the end of 2021. The line, originally, is pulled from the opening pages of John Banville’s early 2000’s novel The Sea. Still, the first time I heard it, it was regarding its use at the beginning of Natasha Trethewey’s memoir Memorial Drive.
I think about that line a lot.
I think about it a lot because I spent a lot of time thinking about the past—sometimes bittersweet or nostalgic, but more often than not, it is a grief that I am trying to stay a step ahead of, but regularly fail at doing so.
The past beats inside me like a second heart.
Within the song “Feathers”—the shuffling, twangy, hushed, and mournful final “song” on Florist, Sprague, near the song’s conclusion, delicately sings the line “I think I have too many pasts,” which is perhaps, out of all the resonant, poignant lyrics on the album, the one that lingers the most.
I find that, for a number of years now, I have looked at albums, as I have been able to and if they present themselves to me in this way, as a reflection, or a statement, on the human condition. And in its duality, or the multitudinous nature, and in its exploration of friendship in artistry, and intimacy in both that relationship and what that relationship creates, Florist is one of those albums. It is a beautiful, haunting, and thought-provoking statement—a band operating with a sense of fearlessness in what their creativity can do.
It is an album that finds Emily Sprague still processing the grief, and everything that comes with that, from her mother's passing. “I think I’m alive,” she sings at the beginning of “Organ’s Drone,” near the halfway point of the record.”Too much on my mind.”
Because if that isn’t a reflection on the human condition—the one that is still desperately trying to find the intersection of grief and joy—then what is?
Florist is out now on 2xLP, CD, and as a digital download via Double Double Whammy.