The Ladybug Transistor - "Clutching Stems" (Clutching Stems)
The Ladybug Transistor’s first album since 2007’s Can’t Wait Another Day, Clutching Stems finds the Elephant 6 alums in search of a new sound. A change in direction is not a surprise, given the tragic death of long-time drummer San Fadyl in 2007 and the addition of new supporting players to the core trio of Gary Olson, Julia Rydholm, and Kyle Forester. Whereas the band’s previous two albums — Another Day and 2003’s self-titled effort — were of a piece, displaying a consistent sound and Olson’s maturing songwriting, Stems branches out in multiple directions, getting rather lost in the process.
Unlike its polished and coherent predecessors, Stems comes off like a series of demos, indicating different paths the band might take, and feels more like a hastily-cobbled together collection (note the short running time of 34 minutes) than an album conceived of as such. Aside from the songs’ shared difference from the band’s earlier work, it’s hard to make generalizations about the tracks here, but it’s fair to say that the 1960s pop and soul elements long dominant in the band’s palette are more suppressed than ever, and that a more ’80s-inflected or new-wavey aesthetic emerges in their place. The clearest reference point, albeit filtered through Olson’s still-distinctive songwriting, is The Smiths, whose influence comes to fore on “Light on the Narrow Gauge” and “Breaking Up on the Beat,” (the latter sounds something like The Smiths covering The Ladybug Transistor, if one can imagine that). Despite Olson’s passable Morrissey inflections, both tracks come off as rather awkward and bloodless.
More importantly, The Ladybug Transistor sound like less of a band here than they have in ages. Gone are the rich sounds and tightly-knit performances that characterized their previous work, replaced by flaccid and unenergetic ones, arrangements that verge on the arbitrary, tinny production, and what sounds like a drum machine (or some very mechanical drumming) on most tracks (see “Ignore the Bell,” “Into the Strait”). Even Olson sounds the worse for wear, his voice thinner and more strained, lacking the confidence and smooth delivery that he has built up over the years.
Despite its lackluster production and a dearth of strong songs, Clutching Stems isn’t quite a bust. Olson still turns in some strong tracks, which are not coincidentally the ones that sound like they would have been most at home on earlier albums. Standouts “Oh Cristina” and “Caught Don’t Walk” find Olson marrying lyrics and music in a way that makes one realize what’s missing elsewhere: the arrangements are straightforward and effective, the flourishes (strings and oboe, and on the latter, Olson’s trumpet) placed in just the right spot, calculated to convey the pitch-perfect melancholy and melodramatic romanticism that has become his trademark. Other songs (the title track, “Hey Jack I’m on Fire”) hold promise, but seem stuck at the demo stage, hampered by less-effective arrangements and subpar production. Shades of The Ladybug Transistor’s past successes shine through here, but on the whole Clutching Stems finds the band grasping at straws.