Though Swedish sister duo, Klara and Johanna Söderberg, better known as the ‘indie-folk darlings’ of First Aid Kit, came onto the scene in their teens echoing a nostalgic 60s sound, make no mistake — they have staked well-earned territory in modern music. Effortlessly covering ground across many genres, often within a single album, their most recent release, Ruins, is a natural progression of their sound, yet stands entirely on its own.
By recruiting new producer, Tucker Martine (Neko Case, Decemberists) and a host of talented session musicians, Ruins is as much about human dissolve and resolve as it is a reset for First Aid Kit. It’s undeniable that the raw maturity heard on Ruins would not have manifested itself without the nearly three years respite that the sisters, who were so rarely apart (even sharing an apartment), took from one other. Klara, expressing extreme burnout from relentless touring, set the decision in motion, moving to England while Johanna stayed in their native Stockholm. Reuniting to write in Los Angeles, specifically Joshua Tree, Ruins has an expansive cosmic sound, making the endless skies of the desert a perfect place for the reflection and aloneness felt on this album. What’s perhaps as intriguing as their musicality and lyrical ability, is where they choose to bunker down and write songs for each new album; the landscape and culture, particularly in America, seem to continually influence the sisters so much so that it’s an unequivocal presence on every record.
Though their distinctive harmonies were of course a mainstay at the Danforth Music Hall on February 5, both Klara and Johanna also allowed each other to showcase their solo appeal vocally and instrumentally; perhaps Ruins may foreshadow what’s to come on future First Aid Kit albums. Another noticeable shift (other than the plethora of musicians accompanying them, including multi-instrumentalist, Steve Moore, affectionately known by the crowd as “STEEEEEVE!”) was witnessing Johanna’s chops on bass, as fans are used to seeing her headbang away on keys. Unlike many artists in contemporary music, First Aid Kit’s M.O is never digestible entertainment. Their loyalty to storytelling, beginning to end, is always present in their live shows, from carefully crafted set lists and painted backdrops to atmospheric lighting design. Ruins was released mere weeks before this show, yet fans sung along to every song and waited in anticipation for the next, making no distinction as to familiar and unfamiliar songs. For First Aid Kit, this new material is cathartic and their enthusiasm to share Ruins was matched by the crowd’s desire to hear it.
Indicative of their ever-evolving direction, You Are the Problem Here (not included on Ruins), is their first protest song and was particularly moving. Released on International Women’s Day 2017, it adds their voices to the canon of work giving momentum to the #MeToo movement. Klara’s blunt anger introducing the song didn’t go unnoticed as fans cheered when she stopped to say, “I don’t know about you, but I’m really sick of being afraid…we’re here for you with love and support. Ladies, we need to stick up for each other.”
Known for paying homage to their musical predecessors and influences, from Paul Simon’s America to participating in four recent Leonard Cohen tribute concerts, as well as their most popular original single Emmylou, they boldly tackled fellow sister duo Heart’s hit single, Crazy on You. Klara playing the intricate acoustic guitar intro was thrilling — made even more so by the fact that, when written in 1976, this hard rock sound had been rarely heard from a female musician. Fans then followed them into a more somber part of the set with Fireworks, a Motown-inspired ballad (as seen in their quirky 1980s prom-themed video). It’s one of many songs on Ruins following the emotional trajectory of harsh breakup experienced by Klara. Fireworks also introduced the first of a few songs which displayed simple, yet effective hand-painted-style animated video projection. With a silent movie-like lyric video, using a cosmic motif once again, an astronaut appears aimlessly floating through space. Klara herself seemed to reel and re-live the loss, while her sister’s backup vocals acted almost like an emotional netting.
Closing with the more universal yet personal My Silver Lining from their acclaimed predecessor, Stay Gold, First Aid Kit’s humble, honest and positive demeanor shone through the lyrics, “…something good comes with the bad, a song’s never just sad, there’s hope, there’s a silver lining.” Consciously echoing the current global sentiment, First Aid Kit provides a well-needed plea for gender equality, as well as an unpacking of the often-fleeting nature of the modern relationship, and the shared anxiety of an uncertain destiny expressed by 20 to 30-somethings, who, like First Aid Kit, continue to try to find a balance in it all.
Words and photos by Jess D. Lea