Less luck than smith, but less trade than art, First Frost marks another strong entry into an under-heralded band’s catalog. The Lucksmiths create indie-pop that’s at once comfortable and unpredictable, relaxed in song structure and sound, but driven by captivating lyrics. This newest album works well in providing not stories, but snippets, often moments of conversation with a few gaps left to fill in. Without wasting a track, the band develops a cohesive album through recurrent themes and images, as well as a developing mood complete with closing fulfillment.
As light as the album sounds sonically (yes, it’s jangle from Australia), the lyrics focus on rain. Even so, the songs never turn past gray (even when, as in “South-East Coastal Rendezvous”, “the wet starts to win”), bringing us into an area of forecasted rain and mild anxiety, rather than actual drizzle. The nervousness stems not from senseless fear, but from an awareness of past events (“the weight of shadow cast / By pieces of the past”) and human tendencies that cause centers not to hold, as captured in emotional affairs, a tendency toward drink, etc.
“A Sobering Thought (Just When One Was Needed)” provides an example of what goes wrong, and how beautiful that moment can be. With “puddles on the floor” juxtaposed with the day’s burgeoning sunlight, the narrator launches into his confession to his lover. He meets up with an old friend, and an ostensibly platonic catching-up turns into a late night dip at the swimming pool. The wetness here, evidentiary in its puddling, is not due to the always coming rain, but from the individual choice in the present. The Lucksmiths make it lovely and nearly defensible. The title provides the painful denouement: the end comes not from any realization of wrongdoing, but from the sobering thought of potential discovery. Our man drips home.
While he does return, the usual causes of things falling apart merge with the narrators’ desires to flee. Both growing interpersonal distance and increasing anxiety (sometimes ill-founded) manifest themselves in an urge toward flight. “Never and Always” provides some bad advice: “It never rains on the highway”. The Wilco-alluding “California in Popular Song” puts the division between land and sea: “If those dark clouds reach to the empty beach / Well at least the coast is clear”. The singers of “First Frost”, whether hurt or merely anticipating hurt, seek refuge in physical distance rather than emotional repair. If they weren’t drawn so remarkably close to real, they could tend toward the pathetic. Instead, they quickly develop as full characters (see the oscillation and conflict of “Never and Always”). It’s not cowardice so much as a physical expression (geographically, or even topographically) of a persistent condition.
The Lucksmiths don’t leave their listeners in this state of people always going and events always pending. If they had, they’d have created a neurotic, lovely enough work, but one too enmeshed in its own shortcomings to be both as heartwarming and heartbreaking as it is. The opening track “The Town and Hills” provides the question that each character (and each listener) should face: “When was the last time you sang / Along with the bells as they rang?” The question stays away from matters of context. The feeling here—whether happiness, freedom, or escape—comes not from external situations (like rain), but from internal decisions (like jumping into a pool, only antithetically).
Hope hides throughout the album, usually peeking out in phrases like “I hope someday you’ll see me / Even briefly / In a good light”. In one of the more pleasing tracks, “The National Mitten Registry”, we find encouragement and strength from a personified mitten. The whole track’s a playful poem in which, without the title, you might believe the narrator to even be a person (“threadbare and falling apart” or “Forgotten, forlorn / Unclaimed and uncared for”). Then, in a cheerful play on words, the mitten sets an example by calmly and simply stating, “Fingers crossed / All is not lost”. If a mitten can cross its fingers, then we should take comfort.
The tide (for we’re thoroughly wet now, whether the rain’s hit us or not) turns fully on “Up with the Sun”. If the album has largely been about people about to go in motion but not quite gone and rain always arriving but never arrived, we suddenly get sticky and stuck on the album’s finest couplet: “New sun behind me, like syrup on my skin / Honey, remind me where it is we’ve been” (the wordplay is thoroughly delicious). The narrator takes stock, recognizing his own “shame and ... shackles” and breaking from his mental entrapment. In doing so, the dark clouds falter, and he sings, “Oh, but then one morning as the clubs were closing / Dawn stuck her nose in / And over I was won”.
“Who Turned on the Lights?” closes the album with unsentimental opportunity, offering apology and care. The weather suppresses light, but “there’s power in the city tonight”. Our narrator cautions not against the rain, but against the fear of it, embracing the trembling and explaining that “the lightning and rain are gonna pass / And leave these streets looking so pretty in a while / After all, the wet look is back in style”. Not only the people, but also the wetness is redeemed, changing the convicting puddle into something more. Here, the narrator exchanges the weather in its native unpredictability for “Bernini’s fountain”, a constructed work and a choosing of beauty. The moment says farewell to umbrella arms in favor of the light of a Roman holiday.
// Notes from the Road
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