What I Listened To When I Listened To Music This Week – First Aid Kit – Stay Gold

I would like to live in Sweden
When my work is done
Where the snow lies crisp and even
‘Neath the midnight sun
Safe and clean and green and modern
Bright and breezy – free and easy
Sweden – Sweden – Sweden – In Sweden
I am gonna live in Sweden
Please don’t ask me why
For if I were to give a reason
It would be a lie
Tall and strong and blonde and blue-eyed
Pure and healthy, very wealthy
I’ll grow wings and fly to Sweden
When my time is come
Then at last my eyes shall see them
Heroes every one
Ingmar Bergman
Henrik Ibsen
Karin Larrson
Nina Persson

Neil Hannon wrote that, clever lad.

That’s right folks we are talking Sweden today, the yellow and blue bit of Scandinavia is pretty darn hip right now by all accounts!

Number five in the world happiness report, fourth in the Gender Gap Report and they would be at the world cup if it wasn’t for that pesky Ronaldo. Hell, it’s probably the best place to be in the world right now apart from Denmark or Norway.
This is of course a music blog though, so what of Swedish music?
Well the music coming out of Sweden is so blooming great that our favourite Indie-Pop night Scared To Dance had a Swedish special and managed to play nothing but Swedish music all night! The likes of The Concretes, The Cardigans and Ace Of Bass might have been my first experience of Swedish music, but there is far more going on than what is creeping into our charts.

There is folk from The Tallest Man On Earth and José González, the bizarre Scott Walker stylings of Jens Lekman and a wave of genuinely interesting pop-stars. The likes of Lykke Li, Robyn and Little Dragon are surely a lot more interesting than most of the “chart-music” coming out over here.

Then of course, as roughly 300 people mentioned outside Scared To Dance the other night, there is always Abba.

FIRST AID KIT – STAY GOLD

First Aid Kit first came to the world’s attention back in 2008 via their cover of the Fleet Foxes track, Tiger Mountain Peasant Song. They were at the time, without wanting to sound like a crotchety old man, sickeningly young. Now aged 23 and 21 respectively, Johanna & Klara are on the verge of international mega-stardom. They have already scored a Top 40 album in the UK and a number one album in Sweden, via their second album The Lion’s Roar which came out in 2012.

The Lion’s Roar was quite a step up for the band, both in terms of sales, and, perhaps more importantly for a young band, ambition. Produced by Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes, it considerably widened their sonic pallet. Whilst debut, The Big Black And The Blue, was a largely stripped back and acoustic affair, The Lion’s Roar saw the sisters natural harmonies paired to a far more ambitious backing. Indeed, the album recorded in Omaha by a member of Bright Eyes, featuring Conor Oberst, perhaps unsurprisingly sounded musically at least, a lot like Bright Eyes. It was undeniably a very good album, but whilst the playing was immaculate and the singing stunning, the song-writing perhaps left a little to be desired. If you are just into your twenties and the only fault on your album is a lack of originality, it would be a cruel person to write you off.

Which brings us around to now, Stay Gold is the third First Aid Kit record, and their first on a major label. Having left the relative intimacy of Wichita behind, and signed to Columbia Records, home of Beyonce, Bob Dylan and Nine Inch Nails, it is fair to say this is fairly unprecedented territory for the band. Whilst the previous recordings had been designed to be played by a three-piece touring band, with the greater budget on offer, it is no surprise that there has been an expansion of the scope of the recording. The presence of a 13 piece orchestra looms all over the record, the contrast with their early recordings is stark. That said, with Mike Mogis still on production duties, despite its wide-screen musical approach, the production remains subtle and remarkably uncluttered. Indeed, despite the undeniably pop tendencies on show, it still remains first and foremost a country album.

The country versus pop angle is one of the albums most intriguing battles. The girls and undeniably country-singers, growing up adoring Bright Eyes and discovering through him the greats. They sang on The Lion’s Roar’s best track Emmylou of Johnny Cash & Gram Parsons, of Emmylou Harris, of many of countries greatest stars. The alt-country fan in me doesn’t want them to change, but their label surely do! It is clear on tracks like My Silver Lining and The Bell, that they have the potential to be a cross over hit, they could even do for country music what Mumford & Son’s did for folk. That is in many eyes a terrible thing, when you take a genre and re-route it into the pop charts, you will always divide opinion. You will probably upset me along the way, but then I realised a long time ago, impressing me and selling records are two very different aims.

It is to First Aid Kits credit that despite all my skepticism, this remains a very good album. There is an awful lot to like about it! Master Pretender recalls Fleet Foxes, all picked guitars and gentle woodwind, with a delightful country twang to the slide guitar. The Bell sounds like the end of a Disney Princess movie, pairing a lilting waltz beat to a fluttering flute, the album in punctuated with subtle moment of great beauty just like this one.

Cedar Lane recalls Neil Young, all melancholic slides and frankly mindblowing harmonies. There’s an absolutely gorgeous moment as the lyrical refrain kicks in, the vocal harmonies leap and the piano plays the worlds saddest honky-tonk line. A Long Time Ago is a lilting piano ballad, muscialy it’s uninspired, but the lyric “I could have been so many things, it would never be enough for you” set to their beautiful vocals, is heartwrenching.
Waitress Song, sees them pondering escaping it all, “I could move to a small town and become a waitress” and then concluding via Cyndi Lauper that “girls they just want to have fun” but quickly ruining that sentiment with “and the rest of us hardly know who we are” An over extended circus metaphor in the middle aside, it is one of the album highlights.

The other highlight is probably the albums most divisive moment. Heaven Knows is a proper country stomper, it even features the sound of one of those percussive frogs, that make a ribbert sound when you run a drum stick over them. It’s a full on ho-down by the middle section, all fiddles and guitars set to a Johnny Cash beat. It has also got some of the bests lyrics on show “you paid so much attention to what you’re no, you have no idea who you are.” Towards the end the girls shout, or perhaps more accurately scream “STRAIGHT TO HELL!” it’s charming, catchy, charismatic and all in all a delight.

It is a tricky balancing act. Trying to sell records is tough enough when you play the industry games, refusing to write pop-songs was never an option. They have written a very good album, it’s critically acclaimed, and it’s very good, but I cannot escape the nagging doubt that somewhere in reaching for the mainstream, they lost a little of their charm along the way.

Stay Gold is out now on Columbia Records. First Aid Kit tour the UK in September including a date at The Royal Albert Hall

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