Between First Aid Kit’s country-tinged melodies and not-so-subtle references to Robert Frost, it’s obvious that Swedish-born sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg have a special affection for Western culture. They’ve never been ashamed to flaunt their influences — after all, their stunning 2008 cover of Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” was their initial launch pad to stardom. But now it’s six years and three albums later, and the sibling duo has matured fully into their own distinct sound with Stay Gold. And damn if it isn’t a pleasant one.
Guitarist and younger half Klara tends to fill the role of lead singer, but older sister Johanna is never far behind, offering up her own lovely pipes. The duality of their vocal harmonies is rich and warm and strikingly balanced, with Johanna’s voice acting as a heavy counterweight to her sister’s airy tones. There’s a touch of Joni Mitchell circa Blue in Klara’s soaring vocals, and without a doubt it’s the album’s best feature.
Not unlike their last effort, The Lion’s Roar, Klara and Johanna open the tracklist with what is probably the album’s strongest song, “My Silver Lining.” The sisters strain the limits of their vocal range with sky-reaching coos, “oooohs” and “woahs” that melt over vibrant, sun-kissed violins. The result is a radiant demonstration of folk-pop at its brightest.
Arguably, though, First Aid Kit’s genre of choice is in a sticky place right now. In an era dominated by synthesizers, EDM-flavored beats and generally mediocre folk-pop (I’m looking at you, Mumford & Sons), the rustic sounds of the folk genre can seem a tad… old-timey. But the Söderberg sisters overcome this with the help of Bright Eyes producer Mike Mogis, who’s bolstered their sound with intricate production flourishes. A full-blown 13-piece orchestra — complete with woodwinds and strings alike — swells behind the sisters’ voices, but the effect is never muddy or garbled. Instead, the flurry of flute notes on “Fleeting One” and the somber clarinet of “Master Pretender” shine like polished jewels, glossy, refined and as clear as water.
But in contrast to the gorgeous baroque elements that make the album so listenable, at times the girls’ lyrics come off as rather thin. Despite their youth, they sound travel-weary and exhausted by their own success. “I could move to a small town/And become a waitress/Say my name was Stacy/And I was figuring things out,” the duo sings on “Waitress Song.” And while I don’t doubt their sincerity and earnestness, it seems a slightly premature sentiment for two musicians who’ve yet to hit their mid 20’s.
Clocking in at only 38 minutes, the album isn’t excessively long — but they could’ve certainly benefited from an extra five or six minutes for the sake of variety, as the tracklist straddles the thin line between cohesive and repetitive. Klara’s guitar chords, charming and well-played as they are, don’t vary much over the course of the album. Fortunately, the songs’ weaker elements are outshined by the girls’ powerful, evocative pipes. If First Aid Kit can “keep on keepin’ on” as they chime together in the opener, these talented siblings could be the breath of fresh air that revitalizes the folk-pop genre.
On their third album, First Aid Kit has returned with a much bigger sound than their last. There’s a wider palette of noises in the mix, but the girls still manage to exude intimacy and heartfelt sincerity. With their voices at the forefront of the action, no one can deny that they have genuine talent — not to mention an ear for two-part vocal harmonies that could make even Simon & Garfunkel a bit impressed. Because of this their songs are likely more enjoyable live than pre-recorded, but I don’t mean to detract from the crispness and quality of their studio efforts. Overall, Stay Gold is a shining example of what happens when producers actually get it right.
What First Aid Kit needs now is to break away from the mold that held their last three albums together. They’ll be touring throughout Europe for the rest of the year, so hopefully along their travels they’ll pick up some novel influences to keep their sound from stagnating. Johanna and Klara are young yet with a lot of bright years ahead of them if their ambition doesn’t waver.
Reviewer: Kendall Russell
IRC: Tom Byrne
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