In 2008, while still in their teens, the sisters Söderberg, Johanna and Klara of Sweden’s First Aid Kit, catapulted to prominence with their YouTube take on Fleet Foxes’ ‘Tiger Mountain Peasant Song’, a performance that so impressed their heroes that they were invited to perform with the Foxes on their world tour. The sisters’ harmonies then bowled over critics, music lovers, and esteemed colleagues alike with the release of their spare and wistful folkie debut LP, The Big Black And The Blue, in 2010. The album, not to mention the girls’ insane charm was enough to catch the ears of one Jack White, who declared he loved “their voices and their innocence.” He went on to record a 7″ with them, featuring covers of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier” and the classic blues standard, “It Hurts Me Too” at his own Third Man Studios
While the idea of a family folk duo may sound campy, there is nothing vapid about the Söderberg sisters. Maybe its their youth, or the way they make caftans seem cool instead of dated, but Klara and Johanna bring a completely fresh perspective to a burgeoning global folk movement. There’s something to be said for a genetic link as well; their voices are so similar, but just unique enough to lend their harmonies both a beautiful symmetry and subtle distinction. On top of that, their songwriting brims with maturity that seems beyond their years (Johanna is 21, Klara 18), and their lyrics have a clarity that stems from second-language English: beautiful metaphors stated plainly
Their second full-length studio album, The Lion’s Roar marks an important turning point for First Aid Kit. Not only are they beginning to get more recognition after touring extensively with fellow swede Lykke Li, but the actual production and recording of the album took place in collaboration with Bright Eyes, the extremely popular Omaha, NE-based folk trio, which is one of the band’s early influences. Bright Eyes producer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis both produced and mixed The Lion’s Roar, while the other members, Nate Walcott and Conor Oberst contributed instrumentals at various points. This cooperation is felt throughout the entire album, especially on the final track, which was co-written by Oberst
As for the album itself, there couldn’t be a stronger start than the self-titled single, ‘The Lion’s Roar’. A lone guitar sets pace through the slowly building verses while Klara’s emblematic vocals lead us along. Somewhere between belting and twang lies Söderberg’s style, completely unique to other folk songstresses. Coupled with the crescendos of cymbals and guitar, the track sets a pace that seems incredibly patient when compared to the excitement it builds along the way. But in terms of delayed gratification, the crashing jam at the end makes for one sweet payoff.
The next track, ‘Emmylou’, finds First Aid Kit in alt-country territory, and the change of scenery suits them just fine. It pays homage to the girls musical heroes: Miss Harris, Gram Parsons, Johnny Cash, and June Carter. ‘Emmylou’, ushered in with brush work and pedal steel, is pure cotton candy - a guilty pleasure so sweet it will rot your teeth - but before long you may find yourself clapping and swaying from side-to-side as you sing along … ‘I’ll be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June and you’ll be my Gram and Johnny too … Just sing, little darlin’, sing with me.’
While the duo’s music is warmer and more uplifting than their debut, for those who are happiest when miserable, the world-weary, wise-beyond-their-years themes still run deep. A boyfriend dies in a car-crash at 22 in ‘Blue’, ‘This Old Routine’ tracks a stale marriage and there’s the echo-chamber gloom of ‘Dance to Another Tune’
But it’s the lighter tracks that one returns to on The Lion’s Roar. The acoustic guitar and exquisite melodies of album highlight ‘To a Poet’ conjure the beards of Fleet Foxes until it swells to a climax on soaring strings. The most spartan of all the songs, ‘New Year’s Eve. truly allows the Söderberg voices to shine. Against a guitar strum, the lyrics find a way to remove the cliché from the overdone New Year’s resolution theme: “Gotta stop lookin’ at things like they’re black and they’re white/ gotta write more songs of a little more/ treat my friends better/ gotta stop worryin’ about everything to the letter…”
The album finishes on a high note with the jubilant “King of the World,” a continued nod to the absurdist themes originally seen on The Big Black and The Blue. With a treasure trove of instruments (accordian! hand claps! fiddle! mariachi trumpets!) provided by The Felice Brothers and Conor Oberst taking a verse, the tenth and final track of The Lion’s Roar feels like a celebration, a puffing of the chest as the Söderberg girls declare themselves royalty
What makes the song so ideal for the end of the record is the combination of its sing-along chorus and the positivity of its message. Where so many of the other songs on The Lion’s Roar attempt to work through complex emotions and anxiety, “King of the World” crumples them in a ball and throws it out the car window. It provides a necessary relief not just from heavier themes, but all of life’s worries, like bursting into laughter after a good cry
While the original record is 10 tracks, the bonus version contains one extra that is well worth stumping up for. ‘Wolf’ is a tribal tour de force that rivals all other songs on the record. A prayer to animal and elemental spirits, its lyric repetition creates a trance that holds straight through until, suddenly, it ends. The relentless rhythm never loses speed, and the combination of pounding drums and chanting harmonies is downright addictive. If ever there was a song to dance through the woods to while dressed in animal furs and shaking prayer beads, well, this is it
As a whole, the record stands as an impressive second effort. While the collaboration with Bright Eyes is evident, the record as a whole is still very much driven by Klara and Johanna’s aesthetic and reflects their maturity as artists, as well as women. Each and every song speaks to some kind of human commonality, which is what makes their music both powerful and relatable. The exceptional quality of the band’s songs is matched by their onstage presence and the energy that defines their concerts. We can only say… more!
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