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The music industry is obsessed with labels. Each band has to fit into a neat category, it's easier to sell the music that way and yet sometimes bands come to light that don't fit into a category so then a new category has to be created. In the last few years there has been a folk revival, acts like Mumford and Sons, Sufjan Stevens, Kings of Convenience, Lisa Hannigan, Johnny Flynn and Fleet Foxes have all achieved critical and chart success and have attracted a wider mainstream audience. Yet the term folk doesn't quite cover it, their music is certainly made up of traditional folk or folk rock elements but the nature of the songs and the attitude of the bands has more of a indie rock legacy so, you've guessed it indie folk was born. A new addition to this musical movement is 'First Aid Kit' who could probably start their own subgenre as a 'Swedish' Indie folk group. The band is made up of sisters Johanna (b. 1990) and Klara (b. 1993) Söderberg whose sound is closer to the country influenced music beardy men hillbilly 'mountain' rock of the likes of Fleet Foxes than any of their European counterparts. Their distinctive close harmonies and traditional folk influenced songs belie their Scandinavian roots.
After their critically acclaimed 2010 debut album 'The Big Black & the Blue' the sisters from Stockholm have just released their second album 'The Lion's Roar' in 2012.
The Lion's Roar
In the Hearts of Men
This Old Routine
To a Poet
I Found a Way
Dance to Another Tune
New Year's Eve
King of the World
On first hearing the similarities with Fleet Foxes are obvious. From the first song the title track 'The Lions Roar the simple acoustic guitar and drums backing, the crystal clear harmonised vocals and the song structure all remind you of the best of the Fleet Foxes from eponymous 2006 album. What the sisters do well is creating catchy riff and lyrics that perfectly complement their distinctive vocal tones like songbirds on a clear spring morning in the woods. Like me you'll be humming along after just one listen. This second album has seen the band progress musical from their debut. The first album was a paired back simple affair, the songs taking centre stage without musical clutter but with the help producer Mike Mogis they have found more confidence top expand their simple style. As we can see from the second song of their album 'Emmylou' the sisters are not afraid to acknowledge their country influences and the track with its jaunty country rhythm and vocals is certainly a fine tribute to what is best about the genre, this is fast becoming my favourite song on the album and I normally (apart from Johnny Cash) hate anything too 'country'! Mike Mogis's influence is found throughout the recording. Mogis who is best known for his work with Conor Orbest and Bright Eyes infuses the music with a more mature, more complex and slightly darker sensibility. In the best tradition of folk and country music the songs are a perfect mix of sadness and joy as the sisters sing about love lost, falling in love and human condition in general. Recorded in Nebraska the album features an array of backing musicians including The Felice Brothers and Conor Oberst.
Gone are the days when the girls were happy to cover Fleet Foxes songs and tentatively tried to imitate the sound of their favourite artist. They have now come of age with this album and have a confidence that means when they sing intelligent lyrics in a very natural sounding southern twang it's not imitation but the birth of their own distinctive style. After the homely exuberance of 'Emmylou' we get the beautiful soulful 'In the Hearts of Men', which with its complex melodic structure slightly reminded me of Paul Simon in his Simon and Garfunkel days.
"In the hearts of men
In the arms of mothers
In the parts we play to convince others"
Blue is probably their most ambitious song most thematically and musically but they carry it off with assured skill. This song is about the loss of a lover and how death has affected the person making them afraid to risk their emotions on anyone else, a rather sombre subject but yet the melody is a pleasant lilting and the vocals bright and upbeat making this one of the most interesting songs on the album. The Söderberg sisters continue to surprise and delight through the album; never can you quite pin down what will come next as song after song takes a slightly different slant of their version of country indie folk.
Their new bolder sound even stretches to the wonderful exuberant Mexicana, mariachi horns and Latin guitars included of the last song of the album 'King of the World'. Some of the songs on this album express such maturity of composition and themes that it seems surprising that someone so young could have written them. A good example of this is the thoughtful 'This Old Routine' where they sing about the feeling of loss when looking back at one's life and feeling that something is missing, that desire and dreams have not been fulfilled, it's about middle age really but they pull off with style.
"And it gets late and you turned off the lights.
Her body's so close to you in the night.
But you dare not touch her and you don't wanna fight, so you just say,
Many of the songs benefit from occasional sweeping orchestration adding depth and complexity to the compositions. But despite this bolder bigger sound the heart of their music is still their beautiful voices and the thoughtful lyrics.
'New Year's Eve' is the simplest song with just an acoustic guitar strumming away as backing for some wonderful vocals primarily by Johanna. The singing style in this song reminded me of the vocal acrobatics that a young Joni Mitchell used to do, crisp clear high notes juxtaposed by sudden deeper tones.
The saddest of the songs is 'Dance to Another Tune', it's a much slower number with a wonderful lush orchestration backing the mournful haunting vocals and yet there is still an exuberance that comes through with a clever melodic counterpoint at the end. This is all very clever stuff not easy to do and this album could become a bit of a classic.
Their influences are not always what you'd expect, yes they admit a love of Buffy Sainte-Marie and Joni Mitchell but also they appreciate the darker sounds of punk veteran Patti Smith. Certainly some of their lyrics are thoughtful and dark enough to compare with some of Smith's work. It is no surprise that they decided to cover one of Smith's best known songs Dancing Barefoot at the 2011 Polar awards. Their unusual and passionate version of this song even brings a tear to the eye of Patti Smith who was in the audience.
Overall the album is a delight not a bad song on it. It never bores you and the music never ventures into the clichéd sweetness of folk or the over sentimental indulgence of country. Many of the songs are dealing with dark themes, some are exuberant and joyful all are performed with great skill. I can see a very bright future for this band and I hope they don't lose their passion and inventiveness in their song writing.
'The Lion's Roar' by First Aid Kit can be bought from Amazon UK for £7.99 delivered free at the time of writing this review.
© Mauri 2012
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 The LionÂ?s Roar
3 In The Hearts Of Men
5 This Old Routine
6 To A Poet
7 I Found A Way
8 Dance To Another Tune
9 New YearÂ?s Eve
10 King Of The World