First Aid Kit – Ruins
Columbia – 19 January 2017
It has been just under four long years of anticipation since the release of First Aid Kit‘s breakthrough album Stay Gold. Now, sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg (interviewed here by FRUK in 2010), a sort of Scandinavian answer to the McGarrigles by way of Emmylou Harris, return with their long-awaited second major label album Ruins. They’re joined by a plethora of well-known guest musicians, most notable among them former REM guitarist Peter Buck and producer Tucker Martine, but also featuring redoubtable pedal steel maestro Melvin Duffy, New Zealand guitarist Eki Moore, New York multi-instrumentalist Steve Moore and Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, although the girls’ father, Benkt, who handled bass on the last two albums only plays on one track, on electric guitar.
As with Gold, this is a thoroughly Americana album, recorded in Portland, and drips with the sort of songs of break-ups and heartaches that grace thousands of country albums, albeit it’s only a small percentage of those that can match the class and, especially, the harmonies the sisters bring to the genre. The title’s a reference to the dark period that almost swallowed them following the previous album’s success, bringing with it exhaustion and a traumatic collapse of Kara’s engagement, but, as the album amply illustrates, they’ve emerged from the rubble strong and bloodied.
It opens with Rebel Heart, the longest cut, striking a foreboding mood with its dampened, rumbling drums and circling nervy guitar line as, in a number about lost love, they sing “why do I keep trying to be someone I’d never be” and how “nothing matters. All is futile”. Light shines through, musically and lyrically on It’s A Shame, a glorious slice of tumbling country-pop with a steady galloping drum rhythm, keyboard fills and ringing guitars, coming to the conclusion that there’s “no point in wasting sorrow on things that won’t be here tomorrow” as their harmonies fuse in perfect soaring union.
From here things take on a 50s feel for the crooning doo-wop sway of Fireworks, dad on twangsome guitar and Eyvind Kang on viola as the duo trade verses on a song about accepting that things are sometimes just the way they are as it builds to a swelling finale.
Next up is the album’s most classic country sounding number, the superb honky-tonk piano rolling Postcard, the girls adopting their best barroom vocal whine as the rhythm wheels roll along on Duffy’s pedal steel and Kotche’s easy shuffling drums. The musical moods shifts to the earlier folksier sound for the waltzing To Live A Life, another number that, accompanied by violins, touches on Kara’s break-up (“we were a lost cause long before we fell apart”) but, just as the arrangement switches midway from simple acoustic noodling to a fuller sway-along carousel, so too does the mood shift to one of acceptance with “I know it now for my own sake I cannot stay”.
The second half rolls in on the tide of My Wild Sweet Love, McKenzie Smith on muted drums with piano synth, violins and cello as the emotional ebb and flow lyrics with lines like “I need you more than ever now” set against “I can’t blame you for taking that path” in a reflection on “our momentary bliss”.
Heralded by high harmonies and featuring marxophone (a fretless zither reminiscent of a hammered dulcimer) and melodica, the slow organ backed sway of Distant Star is again about lovers that don’t stick around and hanging on until you “get used to the silence” and not “let the world and its darkness pin me down”.
The title track begins the final journey, their vocals running up and down the scales with an almost Texicali flavour as Kotche maintains a simple, persistent drum pattern and Kang’s viola adds warmth and colour on a number about leaving the detritus behind and finding yourself again in the process.
My personal favourite, Hem Of Her Dress also reps a journey from bitterness and anger at being dumped for another to, once again, acceptance that ‘that’s the way it goes”. Sporting the memorable line about how “I was the photograph you forgot you took” it sways along on a simple acoustic strum and keening harmonies before finally transforming into a massed chorus drunken sway featuring, among others, dad, Tucker and even Laura Veirs in the choir, while the strings and Paul Brainland’s trumpet give it the feel of a New Orleans march.
It ends with the graceful but heart piercing mid-tempo Nothing Has To Be True, Johanna singing lead with pedal steel, cello and violins augmented by pump organ, and lines about being “drenched in your own sweat and tears”, friends asking “why do you love those who treat you like a fool” and the realisation that you ultimately have to live in the now, swelling majestically to a white noise catharsis crescendo. It’s often said that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and this album applies salve to the wound and sets about the healing. Just like the medical box of their name, every home should have one.
UK Tour Dates
feb 24 – O2 Academy Glasgow, Glasgow
feb 26 – Albert Hall, Manchester
feb 27 – Albert Hall, Manchester
mar 01 – The Roundhouse, London
mar 02 – The Roundhouse, London