A confession, to start off my first music review of the year: I was resistant to folk music—even just listening to it, as a means of expanding my musical horizons, for a long time. I used to be quite the genre snob, and my knowledge of “folk music” was limited to OGs like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez—because, I thought, those were the only folk musicians that one really “needs” to know. Looking back, I have no explanation for this snobbery other than a stubborn lack of knowledge.
The genre that really got me into folk—one which was, unfortunately, short-lived—was the early 2000s-era “freak folk” designation, which brought together such disparate-seeming musicians as Rufus Wainwright, Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, the Moldy Peaches, and Joanna Newsom. Folk has never been that cool; contemporary folk has seemed to hone in on very earnest women with guitars, and although I am extremely into that (and its foremother, Ani DiFranco, whose weird, acoustically-shredding guitar work arguably laid the way for freak folk, and for the futuristic guitar techniques of contemporary “cool” musicians such as St. Vincent), that particular form of folk has its issues.
The description “very earnest women with guitars” most definitely applies to the early work of sisters Klara and Johanna Soderberg, who perform as First Aid Kit, and who released a new album, Ruins, last week. The Swedish sisters were—appropriately enough for this cultural moment—discovered on YouTube for their covers of Fleet Foxes. First Aid Kit’s 2010 debut The Big Black and Blue sounds like what you’d expect folk music to sound like, but with better harmonies. The band’s second and third albums, released in 2012 and 2014, respectively, found the sisters experimenting with pop and country sounds—and more sophisticated lyricism. “Emmylou,” off of 2012’s The Lion’s Roar, is a jangly, fannish meditation on the dudes of classic country, gender roles, and some of the more iffy sexual politics of the so-called golden age of country and folk.
“Emmylou” is an astonishing song from a solid album, and it was clear that First Aid Kit’s musical direction would further flower from their assured sophomore album. Stay Gold, released in 2014, had the sisters going in a more pop-inflected direction while retaining the scruffy, jam-session likeability of The Lion’s Roar. Stay Gold would also prove to be the sisters’ breakout album—which seems a little obvious at first listen, but makes total sense when you consider the lilting melody and gorgeously melding vocals of both “Cedar Lane” and the album’s title track.
The Soderberg sisters’ graceful new album, Ruins, continues down the path of sounding uplifting — even though the title track is a harsh, lyrical post-mortem of a relationship. Thankfully, First Aid Kit seems to be moving further away from the “earnest women with guitars” model, and the sisters’ gift for melody on Ruins is beautifully complemented by the instrumentation choices—among other instruments, the mandolin, slide guitar, and string sections all get typically country-ish workouts here to lovely effect. I found that lead single “Rebel Heart” has an adult contemporary edge, which was slightly worrying, but by the time “Fireworks” and the straight-up country “Postcard” had ended, I was totally into Ruins. Some of the Soderbergs’ instrumental and songwriting choices on past albums had the unintentional effect of making the songs sound very similar, which to my ears tended to sound like one giant, mid-tempo pop-folk song.
There’s plenty of experimentation with the duo’s sound on Ruins — standout track “Distant Star” starts with the Soderbergs amazingly stretching out the word “well” for almost a full three seconds, and final track “Nothing Has to Be True” is a faithful 1970s throwback that stomps into grunge during its final minute — but even with the sisters’ beautifully matched voices, vintage aesthetic, and songwriting gifts, more of a musical departure from their well-trod sound might reveal unexpected greatness. If the Soderberg sisters wanted to go full 2000s-throwback and make a freak folk album, I would support such an endeavor. Hell, they could collaborate with Chelsea Wolfe and make a mash-up folk pop/metal album. Ruins is a wonderful gem — and a great introduction to the band, should you need one — but I can’t wait to see what First Aid Kit does next.