For 15 years, the name Ladybug Transistor on the front of an album has been like a trademark of quality, and anyone buying one would be assured of wonderfully rich and emotional pop songs, intricately layered production, and a general feeling of radiant joy that comes from experiencing music that’s pure and true. Through member changes, fads coming and going, tragedy, and renewal; the vision of Gary Olson has remained steady, and on the band’s seventh album, Clutching Stems, it shows no signs of flagging. In fact, the album may rank right up there with The Albemarle Sound as their finest, most fully realized work. Made with stalwart bassist Julia Rydholm, keyboardist Kyle Forester, and new recruits Mark Dzula and Michael O’Neil on guitars and Eric Farber on drums, the record has a streamlined and cosmopolitan feel that is new to them. As in the past, lush instrumentation blankets most of the songs with a warm and cozy embrace, but this time it’s not pastoral at all. The punch of the drums, occasional cold synths, and clean production conjure up city streets and late-night drives instead of suburban greenery. It’s a bit of a carryover from the last album, and it’s a welcome direction for the band. Honestly, the slightly cleaner, less busy, and nocturnal-sounding arrangements suit Olson’s stark baritone vocals better, and when some sunshine is required, the lovely backing vocals of Frida Eklund do the trick quite nicely. Coupled with the sound of the album, the songs have a real emotional depth that is common for Olson, but somehow seem more deeply felt here. There’s nothing concrete that makes it clear, it’s more a feeling that comes through in the often heartbreaking words and in Olson’s wounded vocals. He sounds just a tiny bit more engaged and forceful than usual and that suits him too. The break in his voice on the chorus of "Fallen and Falling," the insistence of the repeated “no’s” at the end of “Oh Cristina”, the sly crooning on “Breaking Up on the Beat”; these are examples of Olson’s growth as a vocalist and they help make the album pretty special. It’s rare for a band to keep getting better over time, especially after 15 years, but the Ladybug Transistor have done it, and whether you’ve been a fan the whole time or you are just discovering (or rediscovering) them with this album, there is enough good stuff here to make even the coldest-hearted music snob admit that there is music being made in 2011 that’s just as good as anything made in 1965 or 1977, or any year.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by Tim Sendra