Something interesting can happen when musicians from a European nation get together and pay homage to the country sounds of America. I’m thinking particularly of Bettie Serveert, a Dutch indie rock band that released a 1992 album called Palomine which seemingly paid tribute to the country-rock sounds of Gram Parsons, but added an additional layer of grungy fuzz and feedback to the proceedings, making it seem as though the band was channeling Dinosaur Jr. through Parsons’ particular blend of honky-tonk blues. You can now add First Aid Kit to the pile, as they are a young band of Swedish siblings – Johanna and Klara Söderberg – who have released a remarkable second album in The Lion’s Roar, a follow-up to 2010’s critically acclaimed debut The Big Black and the Blue. Even though Johanna and Klara are especially doe-eyed – they were born in 1990 and 1993 respectively, so, you can do the math – they are mining a hard-worn, ramshackle blend of country music with a little bit of folk injected for that added kick and heft. In fact, the siblings remarkably sound at times like a feminine version of the particularly leathern worn vocal stylings of Johnny Cash, a musician that they pay respect to on their new song “Emmylou” (which also name-checks Emmylou Harris, naturally, as well as Parsons and June Carter).
What’s particularly appealing about First Aid Kit, though, is that even though the band – a family affair, as father Benkt plays bass – is paying tribute and homage to music made years before they were born and thousands of miles away from home, they don’t forget their Swedish roots. On The Lion’s Roar, which was recorded in Omaha, Nebraska, the duo write about Stockholm and long winter nights in their tales of heartbreak, making them more than just a group of young women hovering around the 20-something mark merely being revivalists. They take the DNA of what makes Americana, well, American, but they add their own distinctive voice – and not only in the lyrics. Songs such as the title-track are written as a waltz, while “King of the World” uses the same style of mariachi horns that Cash utilized to great effect on “Ring of Fire”, something you don’t hear that often these days. “In the Hearts of Men” is one of a few tracks that utilizes a lush Mellotron, while “Blue” adds a layer of playfulness by inserting a xylophone, and the sparse “New Year’s Eve” is sung against a lone zither-like device providing the only instrumentation – making it nestle close to the work of Joanna Newsom.
There’s been a little bit of internal politicking over the album prior to its release. “This Old Routine” was slated to be an iTunes bonus track, but either the band or their management decided to swap the song with “Wolf”, which actually appears on all of the physical copy promos that were sent out. It is and isn’t a bit of a head-scratcher, for “Wolf”, with all of its Native American incantation, would have easily been one of the album’s highlights. However, it did seem a bit out of place on the album, even though it giddily pointed towards something different sonic-wise from First Aid Kit. So what listeners who shell out for the standard, non-digital version of the album get in its stead is “This Old Routine”, which is more of a straight-up country ballad complete with gently strummed guitars and the ever omnipresent Mellotron. It’s actually a weaker track than “Wolf”, as it seems fairly rote and not as earworm burrowing, and – in fact – seems like a standard cosmopolitan country song that wouldn’t have been too out of place in the Patsy Cline songbook. The band wasn’t kidding when they called the song “This Old Routine” because, believe me, you get the sense that you’ve heard it somewhere else – and better – before. However, to be charitable, it does make the album flow a bit better. “Wolf”, on the other hand, is a propulsive number full of all sorts of wild chanting, but it isn’t at all surprising from the band when you learn that First Aid Kit has a recorded version of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier” floating somewhere out there on a seven-inch. This is all a long way of saying that those who seek out the iTunes version of The Lion’s Roar are going to get something in the way of a nice treat, and it’s a bit too bad that “Wolf” ultimately didn’t make the final cut. However, as noted, that decision does, in the context of the larger album, seem to be a sensible one. One song added and one song removed only alters the trajectory of The Lion’s Roar minutely.
Alas, there are a few unavoidable pitfalls on The Lion’s Roar, even though it is a remarkably polished and astonishing sophomore album. First of all, the opening title track has what could be called a “false ending” or two – you expect it to quietly finish up, only for it to ramble on for a few extra moments. As well, the wordsmithing of the lyrics can be called into question at times: the lines are sometimes not perfectly metered, so the Söderberg siblings will, at times, just spit out a bunch of words in machine-gun fashion, making them somewhat incomprehensible and annoying. On the final track “King of the World”, the duo succumbs to Very Special Guest Star status, by inviting Bright Eyes’ very own Conor Oberst to co-write the song and contribute singing to its final verse. (The Felice Brothers also make an appearance here, as they apparently were passing through town when the album was being recorded.) This is a bit of a distraction, as the female vocals of the preceding material are so stark and beautiful that to hear a male voice suddenly wander in throws things a little bit off-kilter. It’s too bad, because I’m sure First Aid Kit were looking for a bit of a star-studded boost, but it falls flat and will leave most listeners unimpressed with the decision to share with indie-rock royalty.
The Lion’s Roar is an intriguing listen, warts and all, simply because to hear a group of young women from Sweden, of all places, make such a folksy country record is so warmly appealing. They definitely have respect for not only the material they’ve written, but the forefathers (and foremothers) who appeared before them that they base it on. The end result is a record that is hard not to like. At its best, The Lion’s Roar is a staggering, beautiful recreation of the sounds of Americana long gone, with a few added sprinkles and melodramatic twists that contribute extra dimension and weight to the material. At its worst, The Lion’s Roar is simply serviceable – not great, but not horrible either. All in all, the long player establishes that even though the Söderbergs are definitely young, they are wise and mature for their years. Here’s hoping that First Aid Kit act as a salve to openhearted wounds for many years to come.