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Album review: First Aid Kit - Ruins

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First Aid Kit’s follow-up to the widely successful Stay Gold sees the duo push out of their musical comfort zones whilst retaining the character that gave them such broad appeal in the first place.

Ruins is reflective in tone, brooding over things past yet avoiding the rambling such evaluation could potentially tend to by sticking to the craft of the well-rounded three-minute track they know so well. Attention is sustained throughout the album by kicking off with several strong singles, winning the listener with already-heard songs; the middle of the record is quieter and less immediately exciting, but the closing couplet of ‘Hem of Her Dress’ and ‘Nothing Has to be True’ rekindles interest by introducing some novel sounds, which hint at an exciting future musical direction.

‘Rebel Heart’, the opening track starts sparsely with a fraught keyboard motif accompanied by plodding bass that is somewhat reminiscent of Depeche Mode. It then builds, becoming ever more dynamic as the drums begin to open up and the instrumentation becomes fuller. Lyrically, the song meditates on a careless epithet bestowed on the narrator, which comes back to haunt her now that the relationship is over – she is supposed to feel unrepentant, but her subconscious regrets. The kick around three minutes in gives way to glorious coda in which the full extent of the duo’s new sound is demonstrated with layered brass and strings.

Track two, 'It's A Shame', is something of a First Aid Kit staple – a song fans will expect and welcome, but it too shows artistic development, if in a subtler form. Bright shimmering organs harken back to hazy mirage of their previous record; here, however, they are backed by textural grounding of acoustic strumming. The vocal harmonies for which the sisters are so well-known are present too, but this time they are not so artificially pristine – the recording feels more real.

A highlight of the album comes midway through the fourth song, ‘Postcard’ when one of the Söderbergs shouts, “Pick it for me, James!” and this gives way to a plink-plonky honkytonk piano solo that cannot fail to make you smile. It is a track which is unabashedly Americana. One imagines sitting in a saloon bar away from the blistering afternoon heat ordering whisky “on the rocks”. Luscious slide guitar seeps in and out and there is even a banjo somewhere in there. It’s wonderfully indulgent but genuinely expressive nonetheless.

Ruins does suffer slightly from a lull in the centre. The songs are largely inoffensive, but rather uninspiring, although they do cultivate some sonic novelties such as the revved-up mandolin reminiscent of The Smiths’ ‘Please, Please, Please’ on ‘Distant Stars’.

Lamenting that “some things never heal with time”, the penultimate ‘Hem of Her Dress’ is another triumph closing with a mass choir singing in unison accompanied by just a few temperate trumpets, which is ends in winsome self-congratulatory applause.

First Aid Kit end their latest and possibly best record to date with the properly noisy ‘Nothing Has to Be True’. Trading slide guitars for swelling and screeching feedback, the duo allow their sound to really open up and by the end they seem to reach for the back of the stadium. Overall, the album is a strong artistic statement which deserves to be revisited and which in parts attempts to rid itself of the parochialism of style, with moderate success, that simultaneously lends the duo their charm and limits their range of expression.

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