The Ladybug Transistor are one of those bands you really want to root for. Stalwarts of the US indiepop scene, they’ve seen their friends and contemporaries including Apples In Stereo and Neutral Milk Hotel, go on to success. They, meanwhile, have been flirting on the outskirts since the mid-90s. Founder and singer Gary Olson has stubbonly stuck it out, as wave after wave of musicians passed through his band, and this is their seventh album.
It comes four years after their last album, which was released months after long-term drummer San Fadyl died following an asthma attack. One of Olson’s oldest collaborators, his death has had an unsurprising impact on the band.
2007’s Can’t Wait Another Day saw the band shuffling towards a Bookhouse Boys-ish country-noir sound. Clutching Stems sees them go back to basics, with a cleaner sound that looks to ’80s indie, baroque-pop and their Elephant Six roots for inspiration. Lyrics-wise, it’s packed full of heartbreak and regret, but somehow remains ever optimistic.
Joined by long-term members, keyboardist Kyle Forester (also of Crystal Stilts) and bassist Julia Rydholm, as well as a band of some-times collaborators including MEN‘s Michael O’Neill, Olson’s intentions are clear from the start. The album’s opening track feels like a Belle and Sebastian opener; a slow-builder that unfolds to reveal Olson’s baritone croon, it eventually explodes with calming Postal Service-esque loops.
It’s not the last time other bands spring to mind; Ignore The Bell nods towards Field Music, Fallen and Falling could be a Camera Obscura track, and one of the album’s best tracks Hey Jack I’m On Fire, a feel good, end of the night song, channels The Dears‘ more upbeat moments.
Oh Cristina, on the other hand, takes an even less subtle approach. A gentle song that starts with the sound of crashing waves and delicately strummed strings, it directly quotes from other songs: “It wasn’t me that believed love would tear us apart… Only love can break your heart.”
Olson’s deep vocals loop around carefully crafted violins, creating a moody sense of melancholy a la Jens Lekman Other highlights include Caught Don’t Walk, which manages to blend trumpets with a drawling-indie vocal that Ian McCulluch would be proud of. More than any other point on the album, it’s this song that captures what Olson must be feeling; 16 years into his career, and with Fadyl’s memory hanging over him. It’s powerfully bitter sweet. Elsewhere, Breaking Up The Beat is solidly confident yet dreamy, with layers of jangly guitars.
It clocks in at just 35 minutes, and there are some real delights to be found, but despite having a brilliant head start and a mass of onlookers willing this to be a brilliant record, it doesn’t quite hit the mark. Too many times it sounds like a new college band, raised on Michael Cera films and The Magnetic Fields. If you love the bands The Ladybug Transistor love it’s worth a listen, but this won’t be the album to propel them forwards.