First Aid Kit explores new genres, hiding harmonies

Photo courtesy of Columbia Records

The Swedish sister folk duo “First Aid Kit,” made up of Klara and Johanna Söderberg, has come a long way since their cover of the Fleet Foxes song “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” went viral on YouTube in 2008. At the time, they were both just teenagers.

After their sudden success, both sisters dropped out of school to hit the road and make gorgeous folk music. Klara and Johanna have since sung for Emmylou Harris, received a standing ovation from Paul Simon for their cover of “America” and Jan. 19 they released their fourth studio album, “Ruins.”

The album features songs “It’s a Shame,” “Postcard” and “Fireworks,” which they released early with accompanying vintage-stylized music videos. The videos foreshadowed the mixed-genre nostalgia that the album explores. Watching the video for “Fireworks” is like walking through a kaleidoscopic ‘80s dream sequence that is reminiscent of the band Heart in look and feel. Meanwhile, the song “Postcard” tries to reach back into a rustic, past, conjuring memories of Emmylou Harris and Loretta Lynn.

The whole album feels like a reach back into the past to pick up tidbits of inspiration, much of which materializes as some mashup of the California rock of the Eagles and the dreamy pop rock of Heart. “Postcard” is an exception as it hails back to classic country with riffs of lap steel guitar and an easygoing and repetitive song structure.

The album’s problem is that the harmonies, which are so iconic and intrinsic to the band, are overshadowed by the stylized throwbacks and, inexplicably, excessive drums. Klara and Johanna’s voices are strong, especially together, as their harmonies weave in and around the melody. Their sturdy vocals are quite rhythmic, making heavy drums unnecessary.

The song meanings shine much brighter without extra percussion, like on the title track “Ruins.” “Ruins” ties together the poetic themes of the album, which cover faded and lost relationships, finding oneself far away from where one thought one would be, regret, change, choices and wondering if any of it makes a difference.

The shining star of this album is the song “Hem of Her Dress,” which in lyrics and soul feels like the true melancholic crooning for which the duo is so known. Every song on their previous album “Stay Gold” shimmered with raw feelings expressed by means of husky harmony. Instead of putting a little of that glitter into every song on the album, the duo channeled all of the most impactful musical moments of melodic harmony into the one track, “Hem of Her Dress.”

Both the introductory track “Rebel Heart” and the final track “Nothing Has to be True” hold a lyrical and melodic power that is similar to their previous album. Within the first verses of each track, there is hope that “Hem of Her Dress” might not be alone in greatness, but soon drums befitting of alternative rock are shoehorned in, numbing the forcefulness of the vocals in both songs.

The precious gems of melody and lyrics that make up their previous album will be missed, but the power of “Hem of Her Dress” does not go unappreciated. The exploration of other genres and musical roots presented in the new album is probably an important step in the band’s evolution.

The choice to feature the songs “It’s a Shame,” “Postcard” and “Fireworks” highlights the band’s trajectory into new exploratory directions that might strongly divert from their folk roots. While this shift could lead to great things, fans will have to wait four years to see where the music goes next, if the time between “Stay Gold” and “Ruins” is any indication.