Monday, January 22, 2018

album review: 'ruins' by first aid kit

Can you believe it's been four years since the last First Aid Kit album? Can you believe it's been a decade since they first gained a bit of virality with that Fleet Foxes cover on YouTube before becoming the sort of folk act that can move a truly surprising amount of units - seriously, the fact that Stay Gold moved around two hundred thousand copies in 2014 kind of blows my mind. And part of it is that First Aid Kit don't really seem to attract huge buzz, not quite blowing your mind but building real groundswell as they expand their sound.

And to be fair, it's not like the sisters duo went away - throughout the past several years they've been releasing covers and tributes and singles and touring extensively, bringing on another new drummer and even a keyboardist/trombone player for their backing band last year. Now this didn't surprise me much - given the sounds that are becoming more prevalent in the modern folk and alternative country scene, this could well be an interesting expansion, especially if they played more in country tones. What definitely caught more of my interest was a change in producers, swapping out Mike Mogis for Tucker Martine, who has worked with everyone from The Decemberists to Modest Mouse to Spoon to R.E.M. to even that case/lang/veirs project that was underrated by entirely too many people! So with a veteran further guiding the sound, coming off of Stay Gold - which going back to it now is really just as great as it was four years ago - I had high hopes for this - did Ruins live up to it?

Honestly, I wish it did more. Don't get me wrong, Ruins isn't bad and it certainly shows the duo expanding their tones and sounds into territory I like... but I'm not really convinced that for what this record is targeting it sticks the landing as well as it could. And what's exasperating is that the core fundamentals for First Aid Kit are so damn strong that even if there are little things that hold this album back from greatness - and there are - they'll be ignored overall, which could definitely be worrisome down the line.

So for a change we're going to start with the content, where in comparison to previous First Aid Kit records, the thematic arc feels much more focused: it's a breakup album, partially inspired by Klara Soderberg's real-life experience a few years back. But First Aid Kit's approach to breakups, at least in the writing, is decidedly different than most: still yearning and earnest almost to the point where drama tilts into melodrama, but with a much more practical, mature focus overall. There's a refreshing bluntness to a song like 'Fireworks' where it's outright admitted they saw this coming down the line, or on a song like 'Postcard' where they genuinely wish it could have worked... but it didn't and they still do wish him the best. Some have already said this is indicative of fatalistic thinking with the presumption it would fail coming most to the forefront on 'Rebel Heart', but I'd argue it's simply more pragmatic, acutely aware of the flaws in the relationship and why it was destined to end. Of course, then the follow-up question is why they held it out for so long... and on songs like 'My Wild Sweet Love' and 'Distant Star' that's answered too: they were trying regardless, enjoying it as long as they could before it had to fade, effectively divorcing themselves from the guilt of ending it the way they did. It still sucks, sure, because they're lonely and aggrieved that so much time was wasted, but it was worthwhile, right? Well, this is when a spanner is thrown in the words, foreshadowed on 'Rebel Heart' but coming right to the forefront of 'Hem Of Her Dress' when the guy in question has moved on and the complicated emotions come rushing to the forefront, first the angry deflection before the more reflective melancholy 'Nothing Has To Be True', where she contemplates her decisions driven of emotion and what she told herself to justify it... and none of that had to be true, because when seeking that loving connection, we're all the more willing to believe it.

So yeah, solid as hell theme, very reminiscent of Lydia Loveless' 2016 album Real and I intend that as a compliment in its examination of emotional maturity in complicated relationships and breakups, maybe a shade lacking in more direct detail but you'd expect that coming from First Aid Kit, so why isn't it clicking more? Well, this comes in execution, and let's start with tone. I really do love the harmonic arrangements between Johanna and Klara Soderberg, it's the foundation point of the duo and they have a lot of natural chemistry... but I can't be the only one who finds this sort of breakup record might resonate a little more if it focused more on solos from one or both of them, if only to cultivate a more intimate picture? But that also ties into the overall mood and atmosphere: there's something so electric about those harmonies that you almost forget you're listening to a record about heartbreak, even with semi-detached millennial maturity, and that did throw me a little when digging into the content. What threw me more was the overall instrumental tone chosen, which pivoted more towards alternative country with the usage of 3/4 bass progressions and pedal steel and organ and even hints of horns, all the more common in the modern indie scene. And make no mistake, I don't have any problem with First Aid Kit getting more rootsy - they were going to eventually hit diminishing returns with their big, reverb-soaked songs on records like Stay Gold, this is a good pivot - but with that pivot comes an expectation the lyrics pick up a little more detail, or for a breakup album they embrace slightly more subtle, melancholic vibes. Again, I love the hook driving 'It's A Shame' with the weedy organ and pedal steel, the old-fashioned waltz cadence with fast-picked Spanish flourishes on 'Firework', the more barebones 'To Live A Life' that gradually builds some gorgeous arranged foundation, and of course the deeper, wistful tones that make 'Nothing Has To Be True'. But songs like the jaunty 'Postcard' or the big crowd-singalong ending of 'Hem Of Her Dress' feel a little too broad to fit with the emotional nuance, and you get the feeling that this record is a shade too placid to really engage with the darker, more complicated grief beneath the pretty harmonies and gentle, liquid swells of melody. On top of that, for as much as I like Tucker Martine's work in production, his acoustic pickups were a shade too thin and brittle and I do wish that he'd step back and let the duo deliver more with less - on tracks like 'Distant Star' they feel a tad overproduced and the abrupt ending hurts it.

But as a whole, I think Ruins will hold as a transitional record for First Aid Kit, both in the content and sound in processing a breakup and a pivot into something with more organic, earthy foundation in comparison to the misty layers of Stay Gold. And that's all a good thing - there's emotional maturity and beautiful harmonies and genuinely good tunes here... but it's not all coming together as well as it could as they iron out the kinks, and it feels a shade too safe and placid to really dig deeper, which means I probably would say it's a slight step down from Stay Gold, which felt a little simpler but leaned into it effectively. As such, I'm giving this a very strong 7/10 and definitely a recommendation if you're a fan of this brand of rootsy folk and alternative country, but I would temper your expectations a bit. Definitely really damn good and I predict the next album will be even stronger as they settle into this sound, but they need to get there first.

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