Release Date: Jan 19, 2018
Record label: Columbia
It’s been almost four years since Stay Gold, the critically acclaimed album full of Cosmic American Music-tinged folk, put Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg, aka First Aid Kit, on the map. As fans eagerly awaited a follow-up, the sisters slowly broke down. Subjected to the draining tedium of a never-ending tour, they eventually found themselves blandly going through the motions as the ground beneath their feet never stopped moving.
This angry feminist energy is a continuation of their single “You Are the Problem Here”, which was released on International Woman’s Day 2017. The duo called it angry and direct, a song written out of despair to confront rape culture: “After reading about yet another rape case where the perpetrator was handed a sentence which did not at all reflect the severity of his crime we felt upset and vengeful. We were, and are, sick of living in a society where the victims of rape are often blamed for the horrible thing that has been done to them.
With its release following their 2014 major-label debut, Stay Gold, by nearly four years, the Söderberg sisters of First Aid Kit began work on their fourth album after taking a break from music. In the meantime, Klara had moved back home to Stockholm from Manchester, England following a broken engagement. The resulting Ruins takes on heavy-hearted subject matter inspired by working through the personal aftermath.
The Söderberg sisters first came to prominence a decade ago when self-shot footage of them singing a Fleet Foxes song in a moody forest near their Swedish home went hipster-viral. Ten years down the line and the fact that they’re basically now a bigger deal than the band they covered is testament to the sturdiness of certain factors of the Myspace generation. Still only in their mid-20s, Klara and Johanna are now on their fourth album, following up the gold-selling ‘The Lion’s Roar’ (2012) and ‘Stay Gold’ (2014). ‘Ruins’ is a lush, expansive release that uses the siblings’ uncanny blood harmony to full effect, elevating their low-key folk songs into something majestic..
It appears that 2018 will mark a sort of rebirth year for First Aid Kit. After scoring glowing reviews for their last two LPs (2012's The Lion's Roar and 2014's Stay Gold) the Swedish duo have moved on from longtime producer Mike Mogis to work with Tucker Martine (the Decemberists, My Morning Jacket, Modest Mouse), giving their brand of shimmering alt-country a more raw and live feel. Despite the new sonic scope of their latest LP, Ruins stands as the most intimate and introspective album to date for the Söderberg sisters.
"I want to give so much so freely/Not have to take it back," sing Stockholm sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg on "Rebel Heart." The first track of their fourth album sways with a knowing nostalgia, steady in its melody. But it is in its ramped-up closing half, as the pair sing in call-and-response harmonies which cut through on every second line, guitars glimmering, that you remember why First Aid Kit have stuck around for four albums at all. Ruins is an album of hymns, of tunes that tell stories of lost love, while harking back to the long American tradition of country and folk music.
Like Brits did with U.S. punk, Swedes Klara and Johanna Söderberg repurposed Davis Sisters-style country harmony on their 2012 breakthrough "Emmylou" into a bright new thing, laying into notes like they were tunnel-boring through glaciers. Producing their fourth set, folk-rock impressionist Tucker Martine (Neko Case, My Morning Jacket, Sufjan Stevens, the Decemberists) helps shape a dreamy grandeur, with touches of pedal steel and Peter Buck's guitar atmospherics, while a damaged romance bleeds across a widescreen America – it's like a Sergio Leone film starring Lana Del Rey, doubled.
When Karin Dreijer Andersson, a.k.a. Fever Ray, signed them to Rabid Records about a decade ago, First Aid Kit's Johanna and Klara Söderberg were just teenagers, too young to have had the opportunity to mold a musical identity beyond interpreting their heroes. They're still young ….
The Lowdown: In 2018, it’s rare to see a folk rock group whose career started this decade thrive on a major label and hold marquee placement at major music festivals around the world, especially one who didn’t follow in the footsteps of the Mumfords or Avetts. Nearly 10 years removed from their viral Fleet Foxes cover, sisters Klara and Johanna Soderberg embrace turmoil on their most ambitious album yet, a wide-ranging foray into new territories for the band. The Good: Having already mastered heartland folk on their previous records, the Swedish band strike gold dipping their toes into the realms of ‘70s rock (“It’s a Shame”), blissful dream pop (“Fireworks”), and coal miner country (“Postcards”).
As far back as their 2010 debut album, The Big Black and Blue, First Aid Kit distinguished themselves not only with their singing voices but with their shared songwriting voice. Klara and Johanna Söderberg emerged from YouTube, where they were discovered singing Fleet Foxes songs, and quickly revealed a handy facility for penning folk and country tunes that sounded old in their sounds but new in their sentiments. As teenagers, the sisters had absorbed generations of influences, and now that they’re both in their twenties, they’ve sharpened that sensibility with each new album.
If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that the boundaries of folk and country music - two genres steeped in decades’ worth of tradition - have proved much more pliable than we might once have expected. After all, Bon Iver - who’s very nom de plume has become a byword for lovelorn, hushed tales of heartbreak spun over an acoustic guitar - took about as dramatic a left turn as you could’ve imagined with the glitchy, electronic stylings of 22, A Million, with the possible exception of him being unveiled as the new frontman of Cannibal Corpse. When Fleet Foxes emerged from the wilderness last year, they returned operating on a considerably grander and more experimental plane than six years previously.
It should be obvious: Ruins is about endings. On their fourth album as First Aid Kit, indie-folk darlings Klara and Johanna Söderberg reckon with adult heartache like never before—perhaps because they never had cause. Outwardly, at least, the Söderberg sisters are an astonishing success, a traditionally gifted pair of Bright Eyes fans from Sweden who were singing with Conor Oberst by the time they released their second album, The Lion’s Roar, in 2012.
First Aid Kit made its major label breakthrough in 2014 with Stay Gold, the folk duo’s opus that found Klara and Johanna Soderberg experimenting with an expanded palette of sounds and styles — full orchestras, hints of dance beats, massive sing-along choruses — after years of dedicating themselves to woodsy country-folk traditionalism. Three years later, the group’s fourth album is both a return to the plaintive folk-pop the band crystallized on 2012’s The Lion’s Roar as well as a continuation of the lush production they’ve recently embraced. Songs like “Postcard” and “To Live A Life” are some of the most unadulterated bursts of country roots the group has ever put on record, whereas songs like “Fireworks” and “My Wild Sweet Love,” full of anthemic sing-alongs and expansive sonic palettes, are destined to broaden the group’s appeal even further.
My introduction to First Aid Kit was a delightful YouTube video of the two Swedish teenagers harmonizing “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” by their indie folk heroes Fleet Foxes. It soared right through YouTube's reductive sound algorithm and showcased the special voices of Klara and Johanna. That cover is nine years old (!) and the girls in the video have grown up, toured a ton, released two great records and one mediocre one.