Artist: First Aid Kit
Released: January 19th, 2018
Highlights: It’s a Shame, Fireworks, Postcard, My Wild Sweet Love
With “Ruins”, the Swedish Söderberg sisters, unlikely admirers of American country legends such as Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, and June Carter, reach their fourth full-length release. And to anyone who has been keeping track of Klara and Johanna as they travel down the road of traditional country music, the record holds little surprise. Firmly rooted in the more folksy branch of the genre, the one that is better reproduced when sitting on a porch with an old guitar while surrounded by a small group of people that are willing to clap along, “Ruins” carries tunes that fully take advantage of the girls’ prowesses. These are highly melodic and catchy songs that leave plenty of room for irresistibly beautiful harmonies to resound and for a sweet down-to-earth nature to shine through. Klara and Johanna undeniably know how to write a good hook, be it of the sort that moves listeners’ emotions or of the kind that invites people to sing together with them, and aware that – on its own – good old stripped down country is not enough to draw contemporary audiences, they are able to balance respect for the ethos of the genre with smart touches of modern indie-folk flavors.
The fact that, stylistically, “Ruins” is not too distant from “The Big Black and the Blue”, “The Lion’s Roar”, and “Stay Gold” does not mean it lacks distinguishing features, though. Given country music has never been a stranger to heartbreak (in fact, it is questionable the former would even exist without the latter), sadness over relationships that have turned sour has been a recurring theme for Klara and Johanna throughout their discography. In “Ruins”, however, the pain of lost love is far more omnipresent, and the fact the album’s title nods to what is left after a beautiful story between two people implodes indicates the girls are fully conscious of that. It is an appropriate label, for the record is rarely concerned with the events that lead to a break up. Rather than that, it chooses to dwell on the misery of the aftermath: the attempts to reconstruct bridges that have been burned or to find meaning in what has happened, the coming to grips with the vanishing of joint dreams and plans, the harsh realization that one is alone, and the difficulty to move on.
Klara and Johanna guide listeners through those themes via two distinct musical patterns. Firstly, there are the songs that are so utterly country in their essence that their instrumentation and structure, as recorded onto “Ruins”, could have come straight from a work by the genre’s legends the sisters so deeply admire. “It’s a Shame”, “Postcard”, “To Live a Life”, “Distant Star”, “Ruins”, and “Hem of Her Dress” not only enchant but also serve to remind the audience of where First Aid Kit’s inspiration comes from. Secondly, there are the tracks where, despite the existence of a country essence, an indie grandeur overwhelms it enough to take center stage. “Rebel Heart”, led by a atmospheric picked guitar, concludes its five-minute journey with a coda that is almost psychedelic; “Fireworks”, which is so evocative one can actually see the colorful explosives against a starry sky, is an excellent indie ballad; “My Wild Sweet Love” is supported by synthesized beats that almost make it a pop song; and “Nothing Had to Be True” starts as a simple guitar-and-voice track and then takes the album to a cathartic closure that includes strings and crashing drum rolls.
Truth be told, such a nice equilibrium between the past they so deeply cherish and the current music scene in which they are building their careers is not new to First Aid Kit. To different and always increasing degrees, integrating indie and pop into country has been a task they have been tackling alongside their producers ever since 2012’s “The Lion’s Roar”, so – musically – “Ruins” does not present significant evolutions. It is more of the same, but when the same is well-written material filled with heart, good intentions, and truthfulness, all one can do is applaud Klara and Johanna for their impeccable taste and their ability to produce songs that are so immediately likable. They continue to honor their idols, captivate their audience, and be true to their art.
Album: Always Ascending
Artist: Franz Ferdinand
Released: February 9th, 2018
Highlights: Always Ascending, The Academy Award, Lois Lane, Slow Don’t Kill Me Slow
Ever since their excellent 2004 debut, dance music has always been an integral component of Franz Ferdinand’s sound. In fact, impossibly tight beats and grooves that begged audiences to dances were the main ingredients that made their material stand out among the myriad of indie guitar bands that appeared during the 21st century’s early years. As their career arch evolved, much of the group’s works concentrated upon presenting different balances between the rock music their instrumental setup of guitar, bass, and drums suggested, and Alex Kapranos and his crew’s wishes to attach a mirror ball to the ceiling, turn on walls of strobe lights, and transform their concerts into open-air night clubs. When that mixture leaned too heavily to one side, as in the innocuous “Tonight”, the music ran sour and dull; contrarily, when none of the two sides of the Franz Ferdinand coin overwhelmed its counterpart, fans were rewarded with efforts that were, at worst, solid and entertaining.
For “Always Ascending”, the group arrives somewhat transformed. Nick McCarthy, founding member and guitarist, is gone; and, to make up for his absence, the band brings in multi-instrumentalist Julian Corrie and producer Philippe Zdar, both of synthpop fame. That, alongside an album cover that could have been easily used for a electronic music compilation, should be enough to let listeners know where “Always Ascending” heads to. Never before in their entire career had Franz Ferdinand embraced synthesizers and keyboards so thoroughly. And, surprisingly, after having wisely toned down those elements for “Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action” in the wake of the cold reception that “Tonight” had received, this particular trip back to the land where unbridled synths meet the band’s jumping rock beats is far from unrewarding. Surely, there are occasions when “Always Ascending” falls flat, but in-between the punctual lack of inspiration Franz Ferdinand uncovers a few gems that would not have been found had they remained restrained to their previous safe framework.
On the negative side, “Lazy Boy” and “Finally” are grand examples of synth-rock failure; reliant on the repetition of their respective chorus and bridge – like a far less thrilling “Take Me Out” – the tracks depend on hooks that are just not there. “Huck and Jim”, meanwhile, only shines in its lo-fi distorted chorus. Everywhere else, though, the band succeeds to different degrees. With the exception of the gorgeous closer “Slow Don’t Kill Me Slow”, one of those layered yet silent ballads that seem to be eternally floating in outer space, “Always Ascending” is packed with rather dynamic tracks with segments that widely vary in instrumentation, energy levels, and style, showing Franz Ferdinand was clearly able to find a considerable amount of worthy ideas. The title song, for instance, begins with a lengthy heavenly intro before breaking into a dance rock body; “Paper Cages” approaches its great chorus differently every time it comes around; “Feel the Love Go” has an extended coda where a wild saxophone that could have come from The Stooges’ “Funhouse” seems to struggle against a swelling wall of electronic music; and the synthesizer work put into “Louis Lane” and “Glimpse of Love” is downright spectacular.
It is true that, sometimes, even during the album’s finest moments, the hooks that were clearly planned to be the centerpiece of the songs are not as great as they could have been. And given the band seems to have gone into the process of writing “Always Ascending” with the mindset to come up with simple melodies that are repeated over and over (a staple of the electronic genre), the listening can become grating at points. Nonetheless, the album offers quite a bit of enjoyment. Kapranos is still bursting with coldness, coolness, cynicism, a feeling of superiority, and cruel judgment, and he aims his acid pen towards many: the idealistic youth that wants to change the world to achieve happiness, those who have seen their best years go by and now have to dwell on the misery of what is left, a self-centered generation that engages in online posting competitions to see who is living the best life, and people who watch their lives through screens. Whether one is part of those groups or not, the positively British way of criticism works, and so does the music, because although it is far from being solid all the way through, “Always Ascending” is an interesting new take – with a few highlights – on the sound of one of the few relevant bands of the turn of the century that is still alive, kicking, and being artistically daring.
Album: All Nerve
Artist: The Breeders
Released: March 2nd, 2018
Highlights: Nervous Mary, MetaGoth, Spacewoman, Dawn: Making an Effort
Although it may be purely coincidental, one has to wonder whether Kim Deal’s creative outpours are not genetically programmed into her being to, as precisely as clockwork, be activated with the passing of every ten years. The legendary bass player and occasional vocalist of the Pixies, who provided a much needed sweetness to Black Francis’ violent madness, founded The Breeders back in 1989 in order to find an artistic outlet for her songwriting, which had no room to breathe inside a band dominated by a great composer that was in the midst of one historical roll. Following the release of the solid “Pod” in 1990 and of the utter indie classic “Last Splash” in 1993, it took The Breeders a whole decade to follow up their influential masterpiece. It was a time that operated drastic changes in the music scene but that – as “Title TK”, from 2003, and “Mountain Battles”, from 2008, would show – failed to erode Kim Deal’s desire to use her group and her writing skills to craft an abrasive brand of straightforward noise rock that relied on sugary female vocals to find the right degree of pop to make itself palatable.
Fast forward another ten years, and yet again Kim Deal – alongside her sister, Kelley, as well as bassist Josephine Wiggs and drummer Jim MacPherson – has taken The Breeders out of their Ohio garage for one more rodeo. And if the decade that rushed by between “Last Splash” and “Title TK” did not alter Deal’s approach to writing and The Breeders’ take on indie, neither did the years elapsed between “Mountain Battles” and this new release. The instrumentation is minimalistic to the point “All Nerve” often toys with the contrast between silence and sudden guitar punches; the songs are simple and brief, rarely significantly eclipsing the three-minute mark; and, grounded in this tight scope, The Breeders strive to come up with tracks that try to challenge indie accessibility without breaking it, turning in a collection of tunes that are – simultaneously – inscrutable and direct. What is different in “All Nerve”, especially when put beside its lauded counterparts of the 90s, is that the elusive balance of weirdness and loveliness is slightly off.
The Breeders do still sound like a rough, noisy, and punk garage band; and the vocal interplay between Kim and Kelley remains an irresistible delight. However, “All Nerve” suffers from an overall lack of ideas. Locked in plodding slow-to-mid-tempo grooves, many of the songs come and go without leaving a mark, making them sound like the work of a band that, despite carrying a trademark sound, just reformed to put eleven songs together without considering whether or not they had something urgent to say and showcase. The tunes that do find either a hook or a distinguishing trait to be defined by work fine: “Nervous Mary” stomps forward mightily and takes advantage of the clash between a robotic vocal delivery and a tense melody; “MetaGoth” is haunted by a screaming background guitar that lends it a ghastly aura; “Spacewoman” works thanks to how its silent beautiful verses are broken apart by a chorus whose punchy guitars wash over listeners; and “Dawn: Making an Effort” is a stunning electric ballad that goes drum-less through most of its duration and extracts gorgeous sunrise-evoking music from echoing guitar picking.
These great moments, though, even within a record that is relatively short, are just way too diluted among tracks that are either mundane or plain bad, as it is the case of the two songs that bring the album to a quite anticlimactic close. Despite being true to The Breeders’ ideal of sound, therefore, “All Nerve” amounts to an album that stands somewhere between forgettable and average. It is not that, almost three decades after their debut, time has outpaced the band; after all, the current indie-dominated rock scene looks up to alternative legends such as The Breeders and the Pixies, bands that wrote the book on how to be successful and receive widespread acclaim without compromising their values. It is just that “All Nerve”, amidst a crowded indie environment with plenty of albums that rely on the blueprint designed by those bands, is not good enough to either stand out like a statement by veteran trailblazers or seem significant given the long lull that preceded it.
Album: I’ll Be Your Girl
Artist: The Decemberists
Released: March 16th, 2018
Highlights: Severed, Sucker’s Prayer, We All Die Young, Rusalka Rusalka / Wild Rushes
After “The Hazards of Love”, released in 2009, it was obvious The Decemberists had a problem. It is not that the album qualified as a grand culmination of their sound and as a masterpiece that would be hard to surpass; actually, not only was it a pretty irregular record, but the label of career magnum opus was also far more suiting for its two predecessors, “Picaresque” and “The Crane Wife”. The problem The Decemberists had to tackle following that album was that, with it, the band had taken their opulent, epic, wordy, and charmingly highbrow brand of folk to its ultimate extreme of grandeur: a lengthy rock opera. Therefore, what was – from the get go – a journey in which big narratives, occasionally loose structures, and lush instrumentation got increasingly more ambitious had reached a peak; and, like all summits, the sole exit it offered was downwards. The Decemberists, naturally, took it, and along the descending path they slowly stripped their music off many of its defining traits, consequently unearthing a safe, accessible, and mostly great country record (“The King Is Dead”), and a generally unremarkable folk rock work (“What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World”) that failed to stand out within the overcrowded genre despite its value.
“I’ll Be Your Girl” is the continuation of that trek, and yet another shot at solving the nagging question of where to go next. What The Decemberists do here, though, is throw synthesizers at the problem, and – as it turns out – decorating bland and stripped down folk rock with the electronic instrument does not make the wolf at the door go away: it merely changes its appearance. Within a bubble, “I’ll Be Your Girl” is by no means awful: most of the songs packed into it are melodic, catchy, fun, and carry a bounty of hooks. Additionally, in order to better integrate their folk mannerisms with the synthesizers that dominate the record, Colin Meloy and his crew mostly drop their acoustic tools in favor of electric ones, hence giving birth to unexpected praiseworthy moments in The Decemberists lore, such as the low guttural guitar riff of “Severed” (which would not have sounded weird, if played with more punch, in a Black Sabbath album) and the traditional blues riff that backs the joyful sing-along chorus of “We All Die Young”.
The downfall of “I’ll Be Your Girl”, ultimately, is that it is a The Decemberists album. As such, in the opener “Once in My Life”, when Meloy takes on the role of a character who pleads to the heavens for a sole success after a lifetime of failures, one expects a gripping tale describing a series of situations in which hope was shattered into sorrow; what listeners get, instead, is five minutes of a self-pitying chorus, punctuated by electronic synth-heavy instrumental interludes, that is repeated so much it goes from decent to grating. That theme reappears through a good portion of the album; personages that could have had their lives transformed into deep stories – like the suicidal man of “Sucker’s Prayer” or the killer of “Cutting Stone” – are left undeveloped, and the brief straightforward nature of the songs makes them over-reliant on choruses that sometimes backfire, either due to sheer annoyance (“Your Ghost” and “Everything Is Awful”) or exaggerated repetition (“Once in My Life”).
There are saving graces to be found in “I’ll Be Your Girl”. Among a couple of other instances, the sunny Californian vibe of the instrumentation of “Sucker’s Prayer” cleverly contrasts with the dying wishes of its narrator, proving the humor of Colin Meloy (a man occasionally capable of singing about tragedies with a tongue in his cheek and using words that send all his fans towards the nearest dictionary without coming off as a unlikable pedant) is still intact. Furthermore, the glorious eight-minute two-part piece “Rusalka, Rusalka / Wild Rushes” showcases The Decemberists doing what differs them from the rest of the indie folk crowd; that is, using a complex song – which goes from a piano ballad to an explosive coda – grounded in the genre’s traditions to tell a detailed story. Despite the bright moments it carries, “I’ll Be Your Girl” is not only a little bit too generic for its own good, but it also comes off as the work of a group unable to move to new musical grounds without losing its identity. If The Decemberists are able to find that balance, though, down the line the album may be seen as a fun, quirky, and flawed detour by a band in search of a new summit to climb. For now, it is nothing but the pleasant – yet generic – folk rock of “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” with a load of synthesizers added to the formula.