The sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg sure have come a long way since making their debut as teenagers with 2008’s Drunken Trees EP, both musically and career-wise. The younger of the two sisters may still be a teenager, but they have been making music and touring heavily for years now, and that experience adds a maturity to the songs that you normally would not find in a record written by two so young.
The Lion’s Roar follows their 2010 album The Big Black and the Blue, and is an improvement over that already solid record with both the songwriting and performances being stronger. Plus Mike Mogis’ (of Bright Eyes) production works very well with the music. The album begins incredibly strongly with the magnificent title track and “Emmylou” being especially emotionally affecting. The latter a touching tribute to a few of country music’s greatest artists, with the chorus of “I’ll be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June / And you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny too” sure to bring tears to the eye of every fan of the genre (and many others).
After the opening two-punch the album does not really reach the same heights again, but that says more about the strength of those two songs than about any lack of quality among the rest. There is not a single bad song here, with “This Old Routine” being the weakest as it’s merely ‘quite good’, with all the rest definitely being worthy of attention. However, sometimes one can’t help feeling like they’re left waiting for something as good as “The Lion’s Roar” or “Emmylou”; unfortunately, those two are definitely some ways ahead of the rest.
The album picks up again at the end with the last two tracks; “New Year’s Day” and “King of the World.” The closer even brings in some famous guests in the form of Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst contributing a verse and The Felice Brothers guesting as well. These are fun guest spots, sure to please fans of those acts, but frankly they do not add much to the song and it would have worked as well without them.
If you happen to purchase the iTunes version of the album you’ll be treated with to bonus track “Wolf,” and while I usually would not mention a bonus track in a review this one is definitely worth attention. “Wolf” finds the Söderberg sisters moving outside their comfort zone with their instrumentation and it is in fact probably the best track on the album besides “Emmylou” and “The Lion’s Roar.”
The most striking thing about The Lion’s Roar compared to their previous work is the added maturity and confidence to their songs and performances, as well as a move from folk to a broader definition of Americana. As they’re still only (roughly) 20 years old, one has got every reason to think they will only keep improving. “Wolf” is an excellent preview of what we could, hopefully, be getting from them in the future, and if they were able to release an album where all the tracks are as strong as the top three on this one it would without a doubt be a top five of the year release. As it is, The Lion’s Roar is a quality release, but due to the stand out tracks being placed at the front and the end, the middle section feels weaker than it is, making the overall impression of the album suffer.