My introduction to First Aid Kit was a delightful YouTube video of the two Swedish teenagers harmonizing “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” by their indie folk heroes Fleet Foxes. It soared right through YouTube's reductive sound algorithm and showcased the special voices of Klara and Johanna. That cover is nine years old (!) and the girls in the video have grown up, toured a ton, released two great records and one mediocre one. Which one is Ruins? Read on to find out! Or skip down and see the score and send an angry tweet.
As Fleet Foxes have burrowed deeper into a hole of subversion over those nine years, First Aid Kit have steadily grown more popular and more bland. The Lion’s Roar was an indie folk homage to classic storytelling, Johnny Cash, Robin Pecknold, Bob Dylan and sweet and simple 1950’s Nashville. Ruins sounds like Nashville this decade. All the high resolution euphonious ancillary pieces have slowly chipped away at the edges that made their songs so powerful. What we are left with is a record that couldn’t stand out in a pile, and sounds closer to Mumford and Sons than Fleet Foxes.
“Rebel Heart” begins with a simple strumming and understated melody, but the chorus vocal rhythm is too clunky to carry you to the heights that it thinks it can. At the five minute mark, the song breaks into a full-on indie-pop finale with horns and steady drums. It’s a shift from the typically folky movements they paint in and it is reminiscent of something Eisley would have done about ten years ago.
“Fireworks” is 50’s karaoke nostalgia through a blurry lens and the bland lyrics don’t help either. The bridge references “Silver Lake Avenue” in Antioch and the beach in Chicago evoke a storytelling interest, but the story lacks any progress in the verses or chorus, it’s a tale of ending up alone which is relatable, but without anything to hold onto.
The opposite is true of “Postcard”, a cute little story of the one left behind. The melody is a lonely call out to the open air for contact from a friend or lover long left. Producer Tucker Martine embellishes “To Live a Life” with electronic flourishing arpeggios but they aren’t enough to save a ballad with little emotion and rhymes like “drinking cheap wine, just to pass the time.” Compare those to the emotive and full words they sang 6 years ago — “Now the pale morning sings of forgotten things/She plays a tune for those who wish to overlook.”
Ruins lacks the main ingredients that make folk music so compelling — transparency, clarity, and emotion. They sing with beauty, they harmonize flawlessly, but the feels aren’t there. Take “Distant Star” for example, the song is fine enough, but without the beautiful voices of Klara and Johanna we would have just a Bright Eyes b-side. There isn’t a command as fresh as “Stay Gold” or a vision as reckless as “King of the World”. Ruins isn’t a bad record, or a weak one, it’s a boring one. C