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I’m guessing Johanna and Klara Soderberg spent their formative years steeped in sounds borne from grassy plains and crimson dust. First Aid Kit’s second album The Lion’s Roar is full of close harmonies, permanently shroud in misty reverb that trace the intonation and heartache of those who plied their songcraft through rural America in the middle of the last century.
You wouldn’t suppose the Soderbergs (barely out of their teens) hail from considerably cooler climes. Without getting bogged down in silly notions of musical parochialism, it’s a surprise there’s not an iota of the girls’ native Sweden here. Not a hint of frost in This Old Routine’s domestic dead-end or a suggestion of bleak shadows in To A Poet’s gentle home-spun melancholy.
Instead of cold, black nights that smother whole seasons, this record yearns for another reality. A place where the summers blister and winters are merely harsh rather than brutal and unrelenting. Where losses are plaintive but restrained. Where heartache is imbedded in the mournful trajectory of a slide guitar. Even the accents stake a claim for new pastures. Honed to Nashvillian perfection, vowels twang and high notes ring with the stoicism and purity of country’s old guard.
On Emmylou, Klara carries the burden of Stockholm’s climate with resigned grace “I’ve been told I was born to endure this kind of weather”. The pace is sprightly, courtesy of brush strokes and guitars that skip along in total ignorance of tonal shifts. It’s the voices that make the difference. Initially sad-eyed and aching before spinning into colour, the sisters’ imbue their romantic role-playing (“you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny too”) with an emotional complexity that belies its simple premise.
There’s an argument to be had about whether The Lion’s Roar is anything more than a dutiful facsimile of what has gone before. Mike Mogis’ production pays attention to traditional accents, such as rockabilly bass notes and the aged strings of a mandolin. They are authentic and carefully constructed but the overall effect feels like a modern (and somewhat overly clean) reproduction rather than a fresh reinterpretation.
The album manages to be more than imitation though. For all the studious aping of their heroes, the sisters make the sound their own. Again, it’s the voices that do it. Whatever else is happening, whether it’s the sweet pop chorus of Blue or New Year’s Eve’s lonely introspection, the sister’s sing with staggering maturity, confidence and wisdom. The harmonies are simply gorgeous. Full-bodied and bold yet weighted by a fragility that lends credence to their small, sad tales.
The Lion’s Roar is undoubtedly a labour of deep and reverential love. Idolatry is unabashed and while the album’s hermetically sealed take on American folk and country may have benefited from influences taken closer to home, the sisters’ voices make this recording a fine and often beautiful listen.