By Eleni P. Austin
Every once in a while, a band comes along with a sound that you have been waiting for. You just didn’t know it yet. That’s how it is with First Aid Kit. A duo comprised of Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara Soderberg, they first began making music together when they were 17 and 13 back in 2007.
Growing up in Enskede, a suburb of Stockholm, the sisters came by their musical talents naturally, their dad was a member of the late 80s band, Lolita Pop. They even had a recording studio in their home. The girls attended an English school in Enskede and became infatuated in American Rock & Roll.
At age 12, Klara was introduced to the music of Bright Eyes. Intrigued, she began to search out Conor Oberst’s inspirations, which led her to Bob Dylan and ultimately the Carter Family. The sisters began writing songs together in 2006. Initially, Johanna had to be convinced to abandon her first love, German Techno.
By 2007 the girls were uploading their music to Myspace. They sent their song “Tangerine” to Swedish radio and it received immediate airplay, becoming one of the most requested songs of the summer.
Suddenly the duo was inundated with requests for live performances. By this time, Klara was only 14, so they had to confine their appearances to weekend shows. Record labels came calling and the sisters signed to Rabid Records, a label co-owned by Swedish electronic duo, The Knife.
Their first EP, Drunken Trees arrived in April, 2008. Already a sensation in Sweden, First Aid Kit uploaded their beguiling cover of Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” to Myspace. Fleet Foxes leader, Robin Peckhold posted that link on his band’s website. It received so many hits it almost crashed the site!
Receiving Fleet Foxes’ imprimatur, gave them international acclaim. By this time, Johanna quit high school, (Klara never began), in order to tour. Their dad, Benkt Soderberg, became their bassist. They also signed to the larger label, Witchita, and released their first full-length album, The Big Black & The Blue in 2010.
Touring the U.S., they managed to get their debut to Conor Oberst. The Bright Eyes visionary liked it so much he passed it around to famous friends. Suddenly Jack White invited the sisters to record a single for his Third Man Record label. Bright Eyes guitarist, Mike Mogis stepped up and offered to produce their sophomore effort, The Lion’s Roar.
Released at the beginning of 2012, the album garnered great reviews, shooting to #1 on the Swedish charts and #35 in Great Britain. The first single, “Emmylou,” (“I’ll be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June, If you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny too”) received massive airplay on taste-making Los Angeles station, KCRW.
Now they have returned with their third full-length, Stay Gold. It’s their first album on a major label, Columbia. Mike Mogis is again behind the boards, recording the album on his home turf, Omaha, Nebraska.
Stay Gold gets off to a rollicking start with “My Silver Lining.” Moving at a furious clip, the galloping rhythm is propelled by rippling percussion, soaring violins and viola. The lyrics limn the depths of emotional penury.
Doomed romantic relationships get the once over twice on both “Master Pretender” and “Cedar Lane.” The former blends loping rhythm guitar riffs with lap steel and lap dulcimer. The Soderbergs’ chiming harmonies can’t camouflage the caustic ache of disappointment, “I always thought that you’d be here/But shit gets fucked up and people disappear.”
The latter is a piano-driven waltz . The lyrics burrow deep into the heartache and transient nature of romance on the road. “Coast after coast, cities and states, my world’s an empty map and nothing remains/The place we belonged has quietly gone, while we were making plans it drifted away.”
Four songs, “Stay Gold,” “Shattered Hollow,” “The Bell” and “The Waitress Song,” display a level of sophistication that belies Johanna and Klara’s tender years.
Propelled by a martial cadence, the title track simply shimmers. A restless recollection of love gone wrong, it paints a lonely portrait. “What if to love and be loved’s not enough/ What if I fall and can’t bear to get up?”
Bare bones instrumentation of percussion, organ and piano anchor “Shattered & Hollow.” The lyrics offer up a variation on Tennyson’s “Tis better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.” Here, the sisters are down but not out: “I am in love and I am lost, but I’d rather be broken than empty/I’d rather be shattered than hollow.”
The melody of “The Bell” is a charming roundelay powered by clarinets, flutes, acoustic guitar, organ and piano. The open road almost offers a panacea for heartbreak. “The road it just stretches on ‘til I stop pretending/But the world is an empty frame, and now you are just a name, I’ll keep it that way.”
Finally, over jangly guitar, and soaring celestial harmonies, “The Waitress Song” creates a parallel universe to combat a broken heart. “I could move to a small town and become a waitress, say my name was Stacy and I was figuring things out.”
Other interesting tracks include the philosophical “Fleeting One” and the slightly smartass “Heaven Knows.” The album closes with the pensive “A Long Time Ago.”
Heartbreak is the overriding theme of Stay Gold, but the album is definitely not a downer. The combination of irresistible melodies, eloquent lyrics and sharp instrumentation keeps the listener from wallowing in the mire.
First Aid Kit’s real secret weapon is their angelic, effortless, sororal harmonies: Sweet one minute, sour the next. Mike Mogis’ production allows them the space to let their ethereal blend shine through. It’s a distaff twist on the Everly Brothers’ magical sound.
Stay Gold is a keen distillation of heart break, framed by gorgeous melodies and honeyed harmonies. Like sunshine shooting through ominous clouds, it’s guaranteed to make you smile.