Clutching Stems is cohesive and enjoyable, but it also makes one wonder what could have been had the band decided to reach for the sky, as opposed to being content to just lounge about on the beach.
There’s a song that comes halfway through the Ladybug Transistor’s seventh and most recent album, Clutching Stems, called “Oh Christina” that’s noteworthy as it contains lyrical snippets of other songs referencing past artists. On the song, front man Gary Olson sings “It was not me who would believe that love would tear us apart”. That, of course, would be a reference to Joy Division. Later on, Olson warbles “It was not me who believed that love would break your heart”. That would seemingly be a reference to a Neil Young chestnut. These tent poles that conjure past artists is a little baffling in some respects as Brooklyn’s the Ladybug Transistor doesn’t sound remotely like either Joy Division or Neil Young. Their style is a ‘60s-esque baroque pop that recalls what you’d get if Belle and Sebastian crossed paths with the Smiths, or a slightly less wry Jens Lekman. However, looking back to past musicians and groups is a bit of a given considering the Ladybug Transistor is a throwback group, one that was at one point associated with the Elephant 6 collective. And, of course, this wouldn’t be the first time a band has found power and meaning in what’s come before -- I’m From Barcelona, particularly, do it on their latest album, Forever Today, too, during their song “Dr. Landy”, which is about the redemptive effect of albums such as Rubber Soul on the psyche.
However, for all of the retro-ness the Ladybug Transistor’s music conjures up, there’s a sense of pushing forward and moving on in the form of Clutching Stems. The Ladybug Transistor is a band that has been reeling from personal tragedy in recent years -- their drummer, San Fadyl, died of an asthma attack just prior to the release of their previous album, 2007’s Can’t Wait Another Day. Now surrounded by a group of new recruits, the Ladybug Transistor have begun anew, and if you’re looking for any references to bleakness and death given what the band has been through, you’re not going to find it here. In actuality, there’s a line at the beginning of the song “Fallen and Falling” that goes “Go with the tide, then” and that is precisely what the Ladybug Transistor is doing here. Clutching Stems represents a turning of the page, of pushing past whatever adversity the group has been through, and settling comfortably into the zone of their backwards-looking brand of pop. In fact, Clutching Stems seems remarkably lightweight and airy. If there was an adjective that one would search to describe the album, I’d settle on the word “pleasant”. Despite the wintery bareness depicted on the album cover (at least, I think that's snow there and not an over-exposure), Clutching Stems is summer-like and breezy. It’s an album that takes a few listens for the songs to settle in and make any sort of impact. And that’s something that makes the record a bit baffling: though it seems to get better and better as one dives deeper and deeper into the 10 songs here, it simultaneously is an album that gets harder and harder to make heads or tails of. Clutching Stems is more of a background music kind of statement, and there are only a handful of songs that really stand out and jump at you. That makes the album cohesive and enjoyable, but it also makes one wonder what could have been had the band decided to reach for the sky, as opposed to being content to just lounge about on the beach.
There are three songs that really soar, and one of them, “Light on the Narrow Gauge”, comes just two tracks deep. It’s the song on the record with the fastest tempo, and it moves along at a beautifully strummed gallop -- a stunning piece of jangle pop that recalls the fret work of Johnny Marr. The cut just happens to be the shortest on Clutching Stems, but it makes the most lasting impression as it lodges itself into your cranium and simply refuses to leave. “Caught Don’t Walk” is a bit of a foray into lite jazz-rock that wouldn’t be too far removed from latter day Steely Dan, if Steely Dan actually employed an acoustic jazz guitarist. It’s a song that has the feel of the triumphant about it, and is a stellar piece of cosmopolitan musicianship. “Breaking Up on the Beat” is another track that recalls the Smiths, had the Smiths had a bit of a twee sensibility about them -- I detect a solitary clarinet on the song. It’s an assuredly confident song, and is delightfully catchy. Everything else on Clutching Stems, however, doesn’t really reach for these great heights, and are just remarkably serviceable. The remainder of the album feels like a group that is satisfied and content at setting the controls of the aircraft onto auto-pilot and merely gliding.
Clutching Stems, given what the Ladybug Transistor has been through, could have been a bleak and despairing record, and one is satisfied that Olson and his cohorts didn’t decide to go down the route of wallowing in self-pity. However, the record seems to mark a group that is just in a holding pattern -- unsure of what the next step is in their evolution. That, in and of itself, should appease fans, but one walks away from Clutching Stems wondering what would have happened if the band had decided to mine a bit more of the soulful. In a sense, the warm tropical vibes that the album emanates marks a band that doesn’t seem comfortable with coming to terms with its recent past, and chooses to ignore it. That makes Clutching Stems to be something of a paradox: you’re happy that the band has gotten over its hump and has decided to merely soldier on, but there’s a lack of directness that the Ladybug Transistor is ignoring at the same time. It’s a sort of grasping at straws, a certain lack of surety at confronting the awful, that has the band traversing a rather beaten and well worn path, and the end result is a record with only a handful of highlights.
While Clutching Stems is a record of the sort that they don’t quite make anymore -- it actually sort of sounds like a more streamlined version of the Apples in Stereo’s early recordings in many ways -- this is the kind of thing that the band could have tossed off in its sleep. When there was so much that could have been said -- and there are hints, such as on the track “Into the Strait” when Olson sings “If there was a way to defy the pain ... ” -- Clutching Stems seems to merely sidestep any issues of loss and longing. That just means Clutching Stems is an enjoyable bauble, but it’s also one that’s easy to forget and overlook once its less than 35 minutes unspool. All in all, this is a record that anyone could have made 50 years ago, which is unfortunate because the Ladybug Transistor could and should have burrowed under the skin to say something breathless and remarkable about what it is like to lose a piece of yourself, and how to regroup in the process.