Steve Wilson. On music.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

First Aid Kit at No. 14 in the continuing Top 25 for 2010 Countdown!

Welcome to the top 25 for 2010 Countdown! Each day we'll countdown, today we continue with number 14, culminating with our (okay, my) numero uno album of the year. When they're handy I'll borrow my earlier reviews from the KC Free Press, as I have in this case. 

I welcome all comments, criticisms, questions and dialog in general.

25. Jon Langford - Old Devils (Bloodshot)
24. Vaselines - Sex with an X (Sub Pop)
23. Drive-By Truckers - The Big To-Do (ATO)
22. Magnetic Fields - Realism (Nonesuch)
21. Dum Dum Girls - I Will Be (Sub Pop)
20. Peter Case - Wig! (Yep Roc)
19. Bettye Lavette - Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook (Anti-Epitaph) 
18. Super Wild Horses - Fifteen (Hovac) 
17. Parting Gifts - Strychnine Dandelion (In the Red) 
16. No Age - Everything In Between (Sub Pop)
15. The Fall - Your Future Our Clutter (Domino) 
14. First Aid Kit - The Big Black and the Blue (Wichita Recordings)

Beautiful sibling harmonies, elemental tunes, the sound of America … from Sweden”
Upon first impression, the Soderberg Sisters could have you believing they have lived hardscrabble lives in the American South. Nope, they are from a suburb of Stockholm. And they are all of seventeen (Klara) and twenty (Johanna), respectively. They call themselves First Aid Kit and on The Big Black and The Blue they demonstrate that great American music can come from anywhere. I suspect, too, that a certain wintry Nordic melancholy only enhances their songs of love and loss.

I’ve seen First Aid Kit compared to all of the leading lights of American nu-folk. Natural, I suppose, given the YouTube popularity of their version of Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song.” Listen carefully, though, and those Joanna Newsom comparisons seem a bit ridiculous. Johanna’s husky singing is closer to Neko Case and when she harmonizes with Klara’s more fragile voice their blend is uncannily like the Everly Brothers. There’s a break in their voices, too, when they reach for falsetto that is reminiscent of Kate & Anna McGarrigle. These are strong, iconic influences that the Soderberg’s reflect in stride.

Their songs tend toward slow to mid-tempo performances, and the lyrics (in English) vary wildly from the deeply poetic to the slightly contrived. But those harmonies always convey meaning that the words only suggest. When FAK spurns a Bible-thumping suitor in “Hard Believer” you get the idea that these young ladies aren’t God-fearing or afraid of much else. They do wrestle, unsuccessfully, with embracing the deity on “Heavy Storms” (“I wish I could believe in something bigger”).

Elemental themes (“Heavy Storms”) and strains of folk-fatalism (“I Met Up with the King’) abound, along with familiar lamentations on love. Sweden’s proximity to the sea suffuses the neo-bluegrass sounds (the close-to-yodeling ) of “Sailor Song.” And tidal imagery is central to the lovely “Waltz for Richard.” There’s a touch of Rubber Soul era Beatles on “Josefin,” which exemplifies the Sister’s ability to construct wonderful, rangy melodies over two or three chords.

Sung and played almost entirely by the Soderberg Sisters (a drummer, Charlie Smoliansky, appears on five tracks), The Big Black and The Blue could profit from an up-tempo track or two and the songwriting can be inconsistent. But their debut augurs well for First Aid Kit’s future. They already write and sing with maturity beyond their years. The Big Black and The Blue may only hint at what First Aid Kit will deliver down the road.

Reverberating: 8.0 (original), upgraded to 8.9