Sunday, 12 February 2012

First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar (Album Review 2012)

First Aid Kit is the Swedish sister duo Klara and Johanna Söderberg. Their début EP Drunken Trees was released in 2008 when they were both teenagers, still finding their way and their unique sound. The follow-up album, The Big Black & Blue paved the way for The Lion’s Roar – a much more ambitious, vibrant and musically solid collection of songs. The key improvement can heard in both voices, lead by younger sister Klara and enhanced by the elder Johanna to create serene and wonderful harmonies; there is no mistaking their love of bands like The Fleet Foxes. And this time, the Söderbergs have Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes) on production duties, and they are joined by his band’s front-man Conor Oberst for the album’s rousing finale.

The immediate accessibility of The Lion’s Roar is the balancing of the vocal qualities within a stirring pop song formula. The best song in this respect is the gorgeous Blue, blending heartbreak, loss and hope in a near-perfect three minutes. Another great radio-friendly song is Emmylou, a celebration of the female ‘muse’ using Emmylou Harris and June Carter Cash as the central characters: “You’ll be my Gram and my Johnny too…” completes the pairings. The vocal interplay between the two sisters is mesmerising. This theme continues with In The Hearts Of Men (“…and the arms of mothers”), a more subdued and listless take filled with empty vocals to further showcase these amazing voices.

The two longest songs are the most ambitious. The title track sets the perfect tone for the album. Clear, atmospheric vocals begin the tale of trying to find your way in love: “I’m a goddamn coward but then again so are you…” begins the chorus, for it to end: “…and I never really knew… what to do”. The vocal gymnastics break-up an otherwise flat structure, as the music swirls as a mass of guitars and strings. This continues, after a false ending. Conversely, To A Poet is dark and serious, filled with self-doubt: “There’s nothing more to it… I just get through it…”. At the four-minute point, an astonishing vocal/string instrumental gives the song a final lift, to fade. Brilliant.

Late on, I Found A Way is Emmylou’s moody Goth cousin – a more direct examination of love and companionship. A neat upbeat chorus provides the light touch in what is a smooth and seamless arrangement. New Year’s Eve succeeds in adding some variation – easily the best of the ‘slower’ songs and more proficient song writing. Elsewhere the quality shines even if the songs do not – This Old Routine is slow and laboured but provides some exquisite guitar work and yet another solid vocal, and Dance To Another Tune feels like a lot of style over little substance, and lumbers at an agonisingly slow pace. That said, the delivery is as slick and controlled as ever and at three and half minutes, an instrumental attempts to break the monotony – only for the lack of a thrilling climax.

Album closer King Of The World is another great pop tune. With Conor Oberst sharing the vocals, this is a great finish – storytelling, more self-examination with a sense of fun. Oberst’s turn is as cool as ever and joined by the sisters to create a new unique voice for the last and only time on the album.

The Lion’s Roar is a charming and, at times, beautiful album. Mike Mogis adds the same magic that makes Rilo Kiley’s More Adventurous, Jenny Lewis’s Rabbit Fur Coat and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning by Bright Eyes such engaging listens. This gives the whole album more of an American Country roots flavour than the more obvious ‘folk’ tag. And coupled with the wondrous vocals and wise-beyond-their-years song writing, the Söderbergs are tugging firmly on Laura Marling’s coat tails. The Lion’s Roar is truly the sound of young talent being realised.
-- CS

No comments: