Mention MTV Unplugged to those who have even a half-arsed record collection and they’ll instantly think of one thing; Nirvana’s flawless, iconic 1993 performance and accompanying multi-million selling album. It proved that they had hearts as big as their riffs and showed off their stunning melodies to those who had dismissed grunge as merely a racket.
For better or for worse, over the years it’s also made it easy to forget that the franchise had roped in some rather less celebrated acts. Adam Lambert, Dashboard Confessional, Staind and Korn have all had a bash, while the glory days of the Unplugged sessions seem to be stuck in the 1990s, when Plant and Page, Alice in Chains, Oasis and Alanis Morissette were all willingly robbed of electricity.
Florence Welch’s sudden involvement, then, is unexpected, but certainly not unwelcome. Joined by a gospel choir, it offers Flo a chance to answer back to those who are fond of comparing her epic lungs to a Brasso-ed foghorn. With her backup band at comparative ease, she’s forced to get a handle on the histrionics and make the quiet moments just as impressive as their hollered counterpoints. She steps up the challenge, revelling in the church-like acoustics and delivering a heart-stopping ‘Cosmic Love’. ‘Dog Days Are Over’ is rendered as fresh and powerful as when you first heard it, rather than the supermarket shopping soundtrack it’s now become. That said, a harsh take on ‘Drumming Song’ won’t win her any new fans.
The two most enthralling moments on the album, however, are cover versions. The first is an outrageously filthy version of the Leiber/Wheeler country standard made famous by Johnny and June Carter Cash, ‘Jackson’, on which she’s paired up with fellow sexy ginge Josh Homme. Though it recounts the inevitable quenching of fire in a relationship, here it’s a sweaty negligee of song, almost four whole minutes of pure raunch and husky, mucky danger.
The second is a pared-back version of the soul classic ‘Try A Little Tenderness’. The most underplayed song of the album, it features just Florence’s chiming vocals and minimal piano accompaniment. In the same way that it’s very hard to ruin one of the greatest songs ever written, it’s also very easy to fuck it up. But by putting in a vocal performance utterly different from Otis Redding’s yet every bit as accomplished, she takes the bluesy stomp and turns it into a mournful torch song.
OK, so this record won’t have quite the impact as Nirvana’s (which boasts extra gravitas due to being recorded only five months before Kurt Cobain’s death); but it’s head, shoulders and lungs above anything else MTV Unplugged has offered us this century, at least.