Well this was not expected to catch my ear.
Ask for my predictions for 2018 and Ruins wouldn’t even come close, it wouldn’t even reach the top thousand. And I’m not even sure I could expect a thousand things. That a Swedish duo would swing like a bluegrass Heart but sing with the soul of Emmylou Harris and Bonnie Raitt, providing the best Americana album of the early year well, forget about Russians and porn stars and nuclear weapons and tide pods and John Oliver and patriots and Kardashians and warriors for a moment and ask yourself this: “Swedes? Americana? Good? Am I dreaming?”
No, no, not even lucid dream would choose such a thing so… random. I’m not even mad, I’m impressed. Because, my apologies to First Aid Kit, my ears never had a chance to listen—something about my eyes distracted, looking up at this really cool big-fuckin’ boulder. And thanks to Ruins, a headache has set in and dissected my skull with an equally big-fuckin’ question: “How—Why would you think about missing these ladies now?”
Recording in Portland, Oregon, the veritable graveyard of youth, Klara and Johanna Söderberg, with the help of mega-independent producer, Tucker Martine, craft an accessible, affectionate yet remarkably affable product. of changing expectations and doubt-filled musings. What does Portland have to do this with? Well, take a gander at the dollops-of-grey sky. The dreariness of life is a standard, a feature, what First Aid Kit does is look for the tints and shades and chromas beneath that grief, that bleak absence of colour, and finds hue in the sepia tones of melancholy. They run headlong, starry-eyed even in event of defeat, breaking up, starting over again. The album looks wide across the Willamette, huffs once the crisp winter air and says: “What a time to be alive.” There is no mistaking an eagerness to the heartbreaks that come, hell, the sisters Söderberg seem to run right into them, brick walls, hard knocks be damned.
But it’s not just Martine who keeps the duo in-action, weaving their vocals into this gem, but also throws in the flairs of colour and local heroes: some Steve Moore (Zombi) piano here, pinches of Paul Brainard trumpet there and a pound of Peter Buck (REM) bloody everywhere. Among others, this album is brought alive by their contributions. No need to fear the Courtney Barnett/Kurt Vile (good musicians, bad mixes) effect, Martine makes each contribution pop in the craft while giving First Aid Kit the chromatic moments where the light in their voices crystallizes and ripples emotions hued in red, orange, green, yellow, blue, indigo and violet. It helps that bluegrass and Americana is never made to overwhelm, but indie bands can easily fall down this rabbit hole on the third effort (see: Slow Club, Los Campesinos, MGMT, etc) and just bombard listeners with the sounds of a third kind.
Ruins expressly never falls in to the trap. It stays light-footed, yet heart-heavied. Too loud to be Simon and Garfunkel, too soft to be HAIM. Too mental to fall asleep on its lyricism, too laid-back to depart the beds of each song. Lined with the cushion-notes of Klara Söderberg’s guitar, mattress after mattress, all that is folk comes to mind with finger-picked guitars, viola melodies, hurdy-gurdy marxophones and piano pang triplets and then is accentuated with mellotrons and dulcimers and melodicas and bloody horns. Throw these elements together and “It’s A Shame,” with its cowabunga-blues guitar line becoming of a homeless Jimmy Buffett, bumming out alone on the Florida beach, that showcases a sisterhood of the travelling band.
And from “Rebel Heart” through “Nothing Has To Be True” the album soaks in the Soderbergs’ vocals, moving between Paul Simon-ite grace, Emmylou Harris-esque twang and Marling-like growl. “On To Live a Life” they isolate and then twinkle with Ben Brodin’s vibraphonic star. On “My Wild Sweet Love” they climb from octave to octave as strings and pianos swell underneath. On “Hem of Her Dress” they lead an orchestral pit from the choir. The sisters completely dominate this album to the nth degree just with the pure magnetism of their voices—it’s like the album has to brace itself for the gravitational shifts h time they begin to sing. As if the scene goes dark, a spotlight appears, the pressure pops like a balloon and the temperature drops 30 degrees. Celsius.
They are cool, they are calm and they totally own the moment. But this means its easy to lose oneself in the starpower and forget the starpower around them. The compositions work because of not just the sisters proper, but the amazing the amazing instrumentation around them. However, it sounds less like a tag-team and more like baton-batting and potato-chucking. When the instruments do come together with the sisters (“It’s A Shame,” “Postcard,” “My Wild Sweet Love,” “Nothing Has to Be True”), the result is exceedingly spectacular. On other cuts it just exceeds expectations, never truly bowls through barriers like cardboard.
Is this something most people won’t consider? Isn’t something that most people overlook? Eh, to guess that is folly. Rather, this is something that most listeners will probably never care about. Once the person gets the “A” who cares if there’s a “-“ that trails it. For me, however, this album is solid. It throws in excellent instruments, expert production and abled-help to brew an indie-folk and Americana gem in the independent minefield of rock that is PDX. For any Portlander scoffing at transplants and migrant youth, I would hold this album as a beacon in their darkness. These are the solid works we can expect from the growth of Stumptown.
It’s transformation into a world-class artistic city means artists from around the world will flock and work within it. Find inspiration in it. I will gladly take that run with it madly into the future of buzzes and chirps, far away from the greyness that may mire me in the past.
It wouldn’t seem like a better time to follow the leads of a First Aid Kit.
Album Artist: First Aid Kit
Producer: Tucker Martine
Genre: Americana, indie folk
- “Rebel Heart”
- “It’s a Shame”
- “To Live A Life”
- “My Wild Sweet Love”
- “Distant Star”
- “Hem of Her Dress”
- “Nothing Has to Be True”