Review Summary: Nature's first green is gold.
Americana music by way of Sweden, sisters Johanna and Klara Soderberg have never had much trouble integrating deep into the rutted trails and dusty backwoods of their adopted home. Stay Gold
is their third album in four years, the follow-up to 2012’s gorgeously harmonized, lushly plotted breakout effort The Lion’s Roar
, and, like that record and 2010’s The Big Black & The Blue
, expands upon the sisters’ preternatural melodic gifts and seamless vocal interplay with an ease that is almost chilling in how imperceptibly smooth it is. It is the sound of a relatively young outfit ensconced in the comfort that comes with being veterans; the Soderbergs’ voices evoking Tennessee or the spindly roads of the Hollywood hills more than the great white north. Credit to producer Mike Mogis for allowing the sisters’ vocals to coat a burnished Americana tone and woodsy, vibrant instrumentals that highlight what has always been a timeless sound, from Mitchell and Ronstadt to Lewis and Case. It’s a record confident in its own making, even more so when it turns its focus inward. A song like “Master Pretender,” with its bluntly sobering realization that “I always thought that you’d be here / but sh
it gets fu
cked up, people just disappear,” or the hollow, wishful fantasy at the center of “Waitress Song” are songs that feel lived in, bolstered by the whirlwind lifestyle foisted on these women in the course of a few short years.
First Aid Kit could always sing like this, those voices arcing through pain and love and regret and everything in between with startling accuracy, but there was always a disconnect between the voice and the experience. The Lion’s Roar's
“Emmylou,” still perhaps their best song to date, was a heartrending love letter, but it remained a simulacrum, a summoning of historical ghosts to fulfill feelings of the present. Not so here. Stay Gold
has earned the pain that flits through so many of these beautiful, painstakingly assembled songs. The songs are more mature, Klara and Johanna more willing to match the depth Mogis provides with equal dashes of sadness and optimism. At times, the major label budget and Mogis’ willingness to go all out with production flourishes dampens the intimacy a bit – this is Laurel Canyon in the late '60s in bright, overly saturated color, replete with pastoral flutes on “The Bell” and an un-ironic “keep on keepin’ on” motif on leadoff track “My Silver Lining.” When First Aid Kit are on, the kitsch is part of the appeal. When the group loses the emotional pulses that flow through their music, as on the overly dramatic “Shattered & Hollow” or rote filler like “Heaven Knows,” the sugar can lead to a headache.
Yet those pulses are bloody red and thick, easy to latch on to and impossible to ignore when they hit. The true beauty of Stay Gold
may be too easily lost in its impeccable soundscapes and Mogis’ facile layering of eras on top of eras, but when those harmonies burst through, and the self-doubt or defiant love Johanna or Klara can bring so effectively, so stunningly, is brought to full bore – this is what I listen to music for. “Cedar Lane” can stack all the instruments it wants into a lilting, pedal-steel-inflected symbiosis of past and present folk tropes, but it’s when the sisters sing, as an undivided whole, “Time moved so swiftly all those days / I still remember how you used to say/ ‘Something good will come out of this’” that the song merits its devastating impact, the lie revealed in the next stanza: “my world’s an empty map where nothing remains / the place we belong is quietly gone / while we were making plans, it drifted away.” Stay Gold
has an emotional heft and a vulnerability that has come to characterize First Aid Kit’s best work, the inevitability of the present and the graying past embodied in flawless voices that belie the hurt and yearning behind them. It’s sometimes easy to overlook the forest for Mogis’ carefully manicured trees, but the Soderbergs always draw you back out.
For all the fresh scars experience and maturity have brought them, First Aid Kit remain resolute. “Cedar Lane” is a lesson, not just a forlorn recollection; at the end of it, Johanna and Klara remain more secure in the other than ever. “How could I break away from you,” they sing, transforming a tragedy into a celebration. It’s as fine a summary of Stay Gold