Review: First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar (2012)

To say I’d been anticipating First Aid Kit’s sophomore album, The Lion’s Roar, is one hell of an understatement. Since 2008, I’ve been following Swedish sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg through their dreamy world of folk-rock, and I still haven’t tired of them. Finally, I went and saw them in-person, and left a more rabid fan than I’d walked in. (If you’re keeping track, I’m now sitting on the borderline on “unhealthy obsession.”)

While the idea of a family folk duo may sound campy, there is nothing vapid about the Söderberg sisters. Maybe its their youth, or the way they make caftans seem cool instead of dated, but Klara and Johanna bring a completely fresh perspective to a burgeoning global folk movement. There’s something to be said for a genetic link as well; their voices are so similar, but just unique enough to lend their harmonies both a beautiful symmetry and subtle distinction. On top of that, their songwriting brims with maturity that seems beyond their years (Johanna is 21, Klara 18), and their lyrics have a clarity that stems from second-language English: beautiful metaphors stated plainly.

Their second full-length studio album, The Lion’s Roar marks an important turning point for First Aid Kit. Not only are they beginning to get more recognition after touring extensively with fellow swede Lykke Li, but the actual production and recording of the album took place in collaboration with Bright Eyes, the extremely popular Omaha, NE-based folk trio, which is one of the band’s early influences. In an interview with Consequence of Sound, Johanna credited Bright Eyes as a large basis for her and sister Klara’s songwriting, saying “once we started writing together, we were basically trying to write Conor Oberst songs.” Bright Eyes producer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis both produced and mixed The Lion’s Roar, while the other members, Nate Walcott and Conor Oberst contributed instrumentals at various points. This cooperation is felt throughout the entire album, especially on the final track, which was co-written by Oberst.

As for the album itself, there couldn’t be a stronger start than the self-titled single, “The Lion’s Roar.” A lone guitar sets pace through the slowly building verses while Klara’s emblematic vocals lead us along. Somewhere between belting and twang lies Söderberg’s style, completely unique to other folk songstresses. Coupled with the crescendos of cymbals and guitar, the track sets a pace that seems incredibly patient when compared to the excitement it builds along the way. But in terms of delayed gratification, the crashing jam at the end makes for one sweet payoff.

Following the first track is the band’s second single off the album, “Emmylou”; an undeniably folksy ballad that practically drips in earnestness. Where “The Lion’s Roar” explodes with sound, “Emmylou” is a lullaby; a whispered confession of love for both the song’s protagonist as well as the sisters’ real-life heroes, folk singers Emmylou Harris and June Carter. Though these references form the base of the song, the names are treated with such familiarity and humility that creates a feeling of tribute without fawning. The simplistic harmonies that form the basis of all First Aid Kit songs combine most endearingly with the pedal steel guitar to impart an image of the sisters as reflections of the famous country songstresses.

Though Mogis’s contributions in producing the album add a polished and cohesive quality to the work as a whole, there are a few exceptions I prefer live. First Aid Kit’s masterful performance on Los Angeles radio station KCRW showcased the distinction between the mastered album and more stripped-down acoustic versions of songs. The KCRW version of “Emmylou,” featuring simple acoustic guitar, has a much more intimate, personal feel than its post-production counterpart. It’s on these recordings that the Söderbergs’ harmonies truly shine, and their lyrical candor receives more attention.

“In the Hearts of Men” is the first glimpse of some of the album’s principal themes, anxiety and uncertainty towards the future, and gaining self-awareness. A slow-paced ballad, the song flows languidly before gaining confidence to peak at of the album’s best lyrics, “And then, do it all, with a goddamn smile.” The subsequent instrumental break features a wordless string of notes from Johanna Söderberg, whose voice is normally heard in accompaniment to Klara’s leading vocals. This spot, in fact, is one of the places on the record where Johanna’s voice sings alone, and the wafting distinction it provides to the break is nothing short of divine.

“Blue” provides a slight departure from the preceding tracks in its upbeat pace and instrumentals. The glockenspiel inspires a kind of whimsy in the background reminiscent of the introduction to Noah & the Whale’s “5 Years Time.” While the song itself oozes sunshine, the lyrics lie in line with the other tracks, speaking of depression and personal tragedy. The juxtaposition of messages the listener receives from the music and lyrics serves to offer self-perspective; a path out of the thematic darkness through the lightheartedness of the instrumentals.

This respite is brief, as “This Old Routine” drags the listener back to the melancholic realism of finding oneself trapped in monotony. While the melody here is not the strongest of the album, its marching pace speaks to the theme of dragging time and growing bitterness. A true folk tune, the song material hearkens back to the 60s folk with mentions of struggle and war that are still very topical today.

The echoey solitude of “To a Poet” seems to allude to another of the band’s influences, the Fleet Foxes. Its beginning melody builds with a mournful accordion, gradually adding elements like the light piano chords that haunt the second verse. The slow build of instruments adds length to what is already the longest song on the record and mirrors the drudging journey of heartbreak that Klara sings about. The a cappella break raises further comparison to Fleet Foxes in the beatific harmonic progression that leads right back in to a deep bass drum before the ambrosial ascension of strings. As the violins fade out, the listener is left still indulging in that feeling of longing, of heartache.

In addition to its intricate composition, “To a Poet” contains a literary play on its title; a line from poet Frank O’Hara, “you can’t plan on the heart.” This is borrowed from the ending lines of Ohara’s “My Heart,” which are “you can’t plan on the heart, but the better part of it, my poetry, is open.” Here, as in “Emmylou,” the reference is not adulation, but a wink, adding connotative meaning to the rest of the song’s story and giving the listener a more detailed and intimate view into the songwriter.

The old western chord progression of the next track, “I Found a Way,” is very much a continuation of the sweeping voyage established in former tracks like “To a Poet” and “The Lion’s Roar.” The tumble of bass drums alludes to a kind of dusty journey-by-night image, which play with the lyrical exploration of flight that eventually finds direction at the song’s conclusion.

“Dance to Another Tune” begins forebodingly, dark percussion accentuated by dragging organ notes. The first two-thirds of the song progress onwards in that slow march before suddenly changing tempo in a literal interpretation of the song’s title. The musical break isolates the last two lines, “Will you look at me, take a good look at me / And tell me who it is that I am?” to emphasize the profundity of the question which serves as the basis for the self-exploration that threads the album together.

The charming slide of the autoharp characterizes the penultimate track, “New Year’s Eve,” and brings the heavy uncertainty of the lyrics to an intimate, comforting tone. An exploration of the doubt that comes with facing the future, Klara’s wondering vocals are joined by Johanna’s harmonies only at the mantra of “That’s what’s going to save me.” This reassurance pushes the message that the very fear and doubt of the unknown future is what helps us wonder at our experiences; there’s a comfort in uncertainty.

A perfect culmination to the searching found in the rest of the album is the final track, “King of the World,” written and sung by both the Söderberg sisters and Conor Oberst. An upbeat and carefree frolick, the complex but effortless duality of the chorus lyrics are an unmistakable sign of Oberst’s influence.

What makes the song so ideal for the end of the record is the combination of its sing-along chorus and the positivity of its message. Where so many of the other songs on The Lion’s Roar attempt to work through complex emotions and anxiety, “King of the World” crumples them in a ball and throws it out the car window. It provides a necessary relief not just from heavier themes, but all of life’s worries, like bursting into laughter after a good cry.

While the original record is 10 tracks, the bonus version contains one extra that is well worth springing for. “Wolf” is a tribal tour de force that rivals all other songs on the record. A prayer to animal and elemental spirits, its lyric repetition creates a trance that holds straight through until, suddenly, it ends. The relentless rhythm never loses speed, and the combination of pounding drums and chanting harmonies is downright addictive. If ever there was a song to dance through the woods to while dressed in animal furs and shaking prayer beads, well, this is it.

As a whole, the record stands as an impressive second effort. The sound is refined in a way that makes First Aid Kit’s first album, The Big Black & The Blue, seem charming in comparison. While the collaboration with Bright Eyes is evident, the record as a whole is still very much driven by Klara and Johanna’s aesthetic and reflects their maturity as artists, as well as women. Each and every song speaks to some kind of human commonality, which is what makes their music both powerful and relatable. Furthermore, the exceptional quality of the band’s songs is matched by their onstage presence and the energy that defines their concerts. I can only say… I can’t wait for more.

Rating: 8.1/10

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