Thursday, June 19, 2014

album review: 'stay gold' by first aid kit

So when I reviewed Sharon Van Etten's pretty damn solid album Are We There a few weeks back, I made reference to the acoustic musical genre that I cheekily branded 'white girls with acoustic guitars', and how while there are more acts in this vein I like than their male counterparts, I couldn't say I was a huge fan of the genre. I wasn't saying you couldn't make good music with just a girl and an acoustic guitar, but that sort of basic, minimalist setup requires every element to be on point or it'll get distracting. 

So what do you get when you get two white girls with acoustic guitars put together? Well, you get First Aid Kit, a Swedish country folk duo of two sisters that started on YouTube and was first discovered through a coincidental connection to one of the members of The Knife. After a cover of theirs of the Fleet Foxes went semi-viral, the duo began to release albums, starting in 2010 with The Big Black & Blue. And while I was struck by some of the intriguing songwriting that showed flavour beyond their years, it was an album that did suffer from amateurish production and a fair number of rough edges. Their second record The Lion's Roar was much stronger, with richer and more diverse production that leaned more towards country, and some of their best songwriting to date. This was a duo with serious melodic chops, and when fused with wryly clever songwriting and measured delivery, it was enough to set First Aid Kit away from the crowd and get me intrigued about their new album, Stay Gold. And honestly, as good of songwriters as they were, they were still just an acoustic duo and I wasn't sure how their signing to a major label would turn out for the band. Was I concerned for nothing?

Well, for the most part, I was, because First Aid Kit delivered a pretty damn great album with Stay Gold that might be one of their most cohesive and mature works to date. And while there are some trademarks of modern folk production that show up on this record - for better and for worse - First Aid Kit still manage to bring a lot of self-awareness, cleverness, and accessibility into their usual formula. 

So let's start with the obvious positives. The biggest selling point of First Aid Kid has always been the two sisters Johanna and Klara, and they have a gift for natural harmony and counterbalance between each other that's beautifully organic and yet still accentuates the uniqueness of both voices. Both have a lot of energy and texture in their delivery, and they've got the emotional range to easily convey the tricky and subtle balance required in some of these tracks. And at the base of this album are the well-structured and interesting acoustic melodic composition that makes their songs distinctive and very capable of drama as well as a strong pop sensibility. And it'd be hard to argue that the soaring moments when they sing together are incredibly powerful.

Now the areas with the biggest changes have come in the instrumentation, with a much thicker and heavier ensemble backing them and adding a richer tapestry of sounds to the mix. And I'm not going to lie, it was a little exasperating to see them move more towards folk than country, although acoustic numbers like 'Master Pretender', 'Cedar Lane', and 'Heaven Knows' do feature enough steel guitar to show some connection. But to be fair, it's not like the strings, occasional organ, heavier percussion, and woodwinds are unwelcome, because when they support the melodies, you get some of the best moments of the album. The strings melody of 'My Silver Moonlight', the graceful dramatic swell of the title track, the echoing minimalism of 'Shattered & Hollow', the rollicking chipper edge of 'Waitress Song', the cymbal crescendos of 'Fleeting One', and the rich bouncy texture of 'Heaven Knows' are all great moments, and the instrumentation never feels cluttered or superfluous. That said, we do run into the common gripe of modern folk production, which is the overuse of reverb - but to be fair, it's not bad on this album, as both girls have strong enough presences behind the mic to support that booming production, and the melodies are always given prominence. That said, there were moments where I did wish for the more intimate atmosphere with a little less reverb and a little bit more rough texture, but that's nitpicking.

But now let's dig into the songwriting and themes - and I'll say right off the bat that despite First Aid Kit's gift for cadence and melody, they do occasionally run into situations where they try to cram too many words into a lyrics and the poetic flow becomes a little choppy. And while the duo do paint some impressive pictures of loneliness and standing alone against an uncaring world, I'd argue the level of lyrical detail never quite reaches some of the heights found on The Lion's Roar. That said, unlike that album First Aid Kit have a much tighter grasp on their themes and motifs and do a really solid job exploring as many facets of them as they can. The title Stay Gold - which always reminds me of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders - is also the primary question of the album: can First Aid Kit maintain their optimism and hope against a world that would seek to push them down?

Now, the obvious answer is yes, and First Aid Kit are a natural fit for songs where youthful exuberance triumphs over cynicism, whether it be in relationships or their careers. But to the duo's credit, they are willing to show a lot of vulnerability in both tone and nuance. 'My Silver Llining' makes it very clear that the duo is gritting their teeth to go forward, and the title track reveals the uncertainty behind that choice, or whether time will make the decision for them. And what helps is that there's a real acknowledgement that this sort of choice will be painful, but as they say, 'they'd rather be shattered than hollow', an adaptation of 'it's better to have loved and lost than to not have loved at all'. That love eventually does take shape on later tracks into the figure of a guy, either one long departed on 'Master Pretender' or absorbed in his own ego 'Heaven Knows', or just in weary resignation that it wasn't meant to be on 'A Long Time Ago' - but First Aid Kit is canny enough to keep their description abstract enough to not imply romance or suggest the lyrics as self-aware commentary about themselves. In fact, it's the moments where they seem to go for slightly more concrete details that the albums feels slightly weaker, as they don't quite feel as fleshed out. And yet strangely, as much as I love the soaring, more abstract moments, it does make the album as a whole feel a little flighty and lacking in heavier drama or those truly somber moments beyond 'Shattered & Hollow' and the excellent closer 'A Long Time Ago' - which is odd, considering it does have some of First Aid Kit's most mature lyrics to date. 

In the end, I really do like this album, but I'm not quite sure if I love it. First Aid Kit clearly have tons of talent in songwriting, delivery, and composition, but I'm not quite sure this album truly blows my mind. I do like the increased attention put into making a 'bigger' sound, which is a natural fit for their vocals, but I feel the songwriting could have afforded a little more detail to match the nuance. Many of the pictures they paint are very strong, I'm just not quite as swept up in the story as I want to be. But just the same, I can recognize serious chops when I hear them, and that knocks this album up to an 8/10 and definitely a recommendation. Folks, if you're looking for country-inspired folk with a modern sensibility, beautiful vocals, and two nuanced brains behind it, you need to get Stay Gold by First Aid Kit, so check them out.

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