First Aid Kit, a Swedish folk duo, have recently released their second album, ‘The Lion’s Roar’. Johanna and Klara are sisters whose influences include Fleet Foxes, Joni Mitchell and Bon Ivor. Their first album, ‘The Big Black and the Blue’, was wonderful and, like the other two bands I mentioned previously, their music captures the wanderings of a solitary traveler crunching their way through the cool moss and autumnal leaves. They are in a word, ‘woodsy’. Their second album has been produced by Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes, another of my favourite bands, and so you can imagine my anticipation. Luckily, last Thursday I was also able to see them play live at Scala in London. This is a review of both the album and their performance.
There are songs that seem a little slow during that first listen and others were the lyrics seem contrived and naive, especially on ‘This Old Routine’. A track which needed to be more emotionally nuanced and subtle is a little heavy-handed lyrically. These young song-writers also have a penchant for singing rhythmically complex lyrics in a way reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Castles made of Sand’. At times this device is suitably jarring and forces the listener to re-engage the song; it is as though they do not want their album to only be background music while you drive. Yet, there are also some wonderful moments lyrically. For instance I love the lines:
Oh the bitter winds are coming in,
And I’m already missing the summer.
Stockholm’s cold but I’ve been told
I was born to endure this kind of weather.
Their moralistic ballads seem a little empty on stage and there is rarely any genuine emotion that is conveyed through the music. Performing ballads live can be difficult for any band and they seem too aware of the potential for fans to lose interest and this defensive approach to performance led them to exaggerate the more up-tempo tracks.
Despite these criticisms, musically they were spot on. The harmonies were precise and the playing was crisp. They managed, with the help of a drummer, to faithfully recreate the sound of the album. What was missing was perhaps some creative reinterpretation of their record, like Iron & Wine might.
In terms of the album itself, the opening two songs are perfect. Fun and light, they are great examples of pop-folk cross-overs and are candidates for future singles. Even here, however, there are darker shades to their music. Some of the folk-ballads during the middle of the album begin to drag during a complete listen but are surprisingly refreshing when they appear at random on your MP3 player. The final two tracks of the album are a return to standard of the opening tracks. In particular, hearing Conor Oberst on the final song was a real treat (a surprise which I have now ruined) and his tone adds an additional layer to their sound.
As singers they are able to mimic each other closely. It is this ability and their desire for a kind of intimacy that brought the standout moments during their performance. At one point, they stepped away from the microphone to perform a genuinely acoustic version of ‘Ghost Town’, inviting the audience to join them. Here their talent shone through and they mesmerized us with their tender rendition of this tragic track. On top of that, the finale and encore were particularly joyful. The album’s title track was outstanding and choosing ‘King of the World’ to close the encore provided a rousing end to the concert.
They are a little socially awkward on stage and lack any real ‘presence’, but, at the same time, when they messed up the Swedish version of ‘Happy Birthday’, in response to a request from the audience, they could be inadvertently charming
Although they are less confessional than Joni Mitchell and less poetic than Laura Marling, First Aid Kit are worth your time. I would not go out of my way to see them live but there album is worth listening to, particularly if you enjoy Fleet Foxes or Bon Ivor.