On their second full-length recording First Aid Kit don’t reinvent themselves. They don’t have to. But they do deepen and extend the sound from their revelatory debut, The Big Black & the Blue (included in Reverberation's 2010 Countdown ... http://stevemahoot.blogspot.com/2010/12/first-aid-kit-at-no-15-in-continuing.html). These Swedish sisters sing like they grew up in the Appalachian Mountains. Yet theirs is a sensibility at once pristine and robust, suggesting the beautiful, stark landscapes of their native Swede as much as the back roads of America.
Now all of nineteen (Klara) and twenty-two (Johanna), the Soderberg sisters sound more in command of their harmonies, which were potent indeed already. They are beneficiaries of the YouTube age, to be sure. Attention for their debut was stirred by their stunning rendition of the Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song.” In the interim between Big Black and their new album The Lion’s Roar fans were treated to a mesmerizing version of Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot.” If you’ve never seen it do so; it’s remarkable – soulful beyond the girls' tender age. Their own songs still aren’t as good as their best covers. But then, if First Aid Kit's songs equaled their stunning singing The Lion’s Roar would be incomparable.
And it’s pretty great as it is.
Because they really do write some fine songs. “Blue” is a charmer; it cries out for their hero Emmylou Harris to have a go. Few singers could make a line like “you’re just a shell of your former youth” sound so buoyant and telling at the same time. The Soderbergs can because they traffic comfortably in melancholy and uplift at the same time.
“Emmylou” (speaking of Ms. Harris) is just plain gorgeous. Homage lyrically to Harris and Gram Parsons (‘You be my Gram, I’ll be your Emmylou”) as well as Johnny and June Cash, the song also is an anthem to the very idea of love as artistic fusion. And who won’t fall for that romance?
But even in “Emmylou” there’s a sweet sense of foreboding, a feeling made more express in the excoriating (and self-castigating) tone of the title track (“I’m a god damn coward, but then again so are you”). Indeed, for all the sweetness of these female-Everly (they remind me of the McGarrigle, Kate and Ann sometimes, too) harmonies, these ladies’ lyrics are hardly sweet and light.
Mike Mogis produces. As the arranger for Bright Eyes, Mogis has developed a strong ear for robust, primarily acoustic performances. His penchant for reverb on the Soderberg’s vocals is a wee bit excessive – sometimes I find myself preferring the relative austerity of Benkt Soderberg's production on The Big Black and Blue.
But generally, give Mogis credit for putting together a lush, beautiful accompaniment to First Aid Kit’s stunning vocals. Of course, with Mogis at the helm and the album being recorded in Omaha, a Conor Oberst appearance was almost a guarantee. He pairs well with them, though, on the co-written “King of the World,” a lament from a heart alienated from self and estranged from love. The girls favor Oberst’s limited range and sing abidingly with him in a spirited tru-et.
The Lion’s Roar seems to have solidified and accelerated the cult audience building around First Aid Kit. Their lovely songs and even more beautiful harmonies certainly deserve an enormous audience.