For such a summery sounding album, Clutching Stems by The Ladybug Transistor sure has a wintry looking album cover. But the bleak desolation of the photograph that graces the front of the record belies the blissful, melodic sounds that are found within, as Gary Olson jettisons the countrified digressions of their recent output in favor of lush, golden pop numbers that really speak to his strengths as a songwriter. Frida Eklund provides dulcet backing vocals throughout the album, giving these sunny songs an even cheerier disposition, even when the lyrics take a darker, more solemn turn.
The relative simplicity of these buoyant arrangements do tend to give the songs a similar tone as the record plays out, but when the tracks are this jaunty and uplifting, that ends up being an easy complaint to overlook, as the band’s seventh full-length coheres naturally and leaves the listener feeling enlivened by the restorative power of their own brand of ebullient, easygoing pop.
Olson’s hypnotic keyboards are met with a dynamic backbeat on the title track which kicks off the album strongly, replete with an impassioned chorus and a graceful, floating melody. It’s a formula that Olson wisely adheres to throughout the record, which leads to the sonic similarities threaded throughout these numbers, but also brings about some strong, bubbly anthems that are right up there amongst the best tracks of The Ladybug Transistor’s lengthy back catalog.
Genial keys colour most of the tracks on the record, giving these songs a jubilant center that is smartly augmented by golden trumpet flourishes, the simple strains of Olson’s acoustic guitar, and his astute lyrics, which consistently touch on love, heartbreak, and the challenge of rebuilding your life after you’ve made enough mistakes to end up alone. He even gives a subtle nod to both Joy Division and Neil Young on the tender love song, ‘Oh Christina,’ which is a studied reflection on the distinctive traits that initially make us fall hard for someone.
But Clutching Stems doesn’t consist of solely cheerful numbers, as there is always another side to that delicate emotion of love. ‘Caught Don’t Walk’ somberly captures the poor decisions that we make that consistently lead us nowhere good, and ‘Breaking Up On The Beat,’ documents the regrets that inevitably follow a failed relationship. But the melodies in these songs are frequently so bright that if you choose not to focus on the lyrics, they could all sound like breezy, lighthearted numbers.
And that innate knack for crafting durable, radiant melodies is the real strength of Olson’s songwriting talents, and those gifts are finally back on full display here after a lengthy four-year hiatus. For whether or not he’s finding a new love or piecing his life back together again, it’s good to have Gary Olson and the Ladybug Transistor back, making enduring pop songs about trying to make sense of the complex affairs of the heart.