"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." Tim Sendra, allmusic.com
"Throughout their 16-year career, The Ladybug Transistor’s records have been incredibly consistent in quality and style. Clutching Stems
subtly departs from the pastoral style the band has cultivated over six previous albums.
This new album is more somber and even urgent at times. This isn’t music to lie in the grass to like past albums; it’s music to ride a bike to. The lush, organic arrangements the band is known for remain, but here the band puts them into motion.
Listening to Clutching Stems
is a different experience than listening to previous Ladybug Transistor records because of this added momentum. All of the bands LPs fly by. It was because the listener would lose themselves and zone out, but Clutching Stems flies by because it more actively engages the listener and makes them zone in.
The Ladybug Transistor take advantage of this engagement on “Oh Christina” with a natural sound opening that is jarring and transportive. It sets the listener up to feel it in the gut when lead singer Gary Olson cries repeatedly “Oh Christina!”
This leads into an excellent back end of the album. Sad, but sultry solo trumpet pulls the listener closer as it introduces “Caught Don’t Walk.” “Breaking up on the Beat” is brilliantly composed with surprising oboe interruptions, beautiful string support and catchy melody.
As the fantastic final three tracks of Clutching Stems
played, I was left speechless. What seemed like subtle departure now felt much more significant. It became clear The Ladybug Transistor have joined a growing list of Merge artists releasing their best work this year." http://trianglemusic.blogspot.com
Clutching Stems is The Ladybug Transistor’s first album since drummer San Fadyl died in 2007, and though it’s often a mistake to assume that what’s happening in musicians’ personal lives is reflected in their music, it’s impossible to ignore the deep feelings of loss permeating it. It’s right there in the title track, which opens the record with Gary Olson’s usual catchy hybrid of early-’80s new wave and late-’60s sunshine-pop, but with a heightened sense of melancholy as Olson sings about how “it’s all coming apart” and how he’s been left “clutching stems.”
The Brooklyn indie-pop band is as poppy as ever, playing songs that putter along with twangy guitar, strict tempos, and little blooms of lush orchestration every half-minute or so. But Clutching Stems feels pinned between the open yearning of “Oh Cristina” (in which Olson quotes the titles of other well-known heartbreak songs) and “Caught Don’t Walk” (in which trumpets burst in periodically to push Olson into a higher register), and the more formalist retro-pop of “Breaking Up On The Beat” and “Fallen And Falling,” where the band seems to be trying to wrest control of a bad situation by caging it within a sturdy musical arrangement. In short, this is a powerful re-focusing of the Ladybug Transistor sound, culminating in the final song, “Life Less True,” a half-confessional/half-accusation that ends with a long vamp. It’s less an epiphany than a pining for sweet stability.
" Noel Murray, www.avclub.com
"Some bands are easy to take for granted. Brooklyn’s The Ladybug Transistor have been releasing solid albums of textured, timeless pop since the mid-1990s. They’ve long been associated with both Merge Records and the Elephant 6 collective, and yet still they’re primarily a cult concern. That’s true in their native U.S. as well as here in Australia, where singer/mainstay Gary Olson is a frequent visitor and collaborator.
Clutching Stems is the band’s seventh album, and as immaculate and melancholy as expected. These songs sound wintry even without glancing at the album cover, sinking deeply into introverted, 1960s-inspired songwriting. Classic ’60s bands like The Zombies and The Left Banke remain a key influence, from the cosy orchestral arrangements to the frosty guitar twang to Olson’s soft singing. But there’s also something of The Go-Betweens in tunes like Breaking up on the Beat and the unrushed closer Life less True. Caught Don’t Walk is a bit more Burt Bacharach, while the reverbed Fallen and Falling sounds like something Jeremy Jay – or even Lost & Lonesome label mate Fred Astereo – would muster.
You can probably tell from those influences whether or not you’ll like this record. It’s pop through and through, spanning the bookish lyrics of Hey Jack I’m on Fire to the light-stepping organ of Into the Strait. The standout is Oh Cristina, which neatly references both Joy Division’sLove will Tear Us Apart and Neil Young’s Only Love can Break Your Heart as part of its story. This kind of well-studied pop has been done plenty before, and yet here it’s still so sad and sweet, affecting and effective." Doug Wallen, In-Press
""…absolute state of grace"
My impression of the Ladybug Transistor is that they have always developed. Initially beginning with pastoral folk pop tunes, they achieved their greatest known work with The Albemarle Sound. They made the first big step with their self-titled album in 2003, where they evolved towards a more adult-style pop (with references like the Go-Betweens or Prefab Sprout) and in it they took advantage of the impressive voice of their leader, Gary Olson, to get the most out of songs that were born from timeless classics. Since then they have only grown. Can’t Wait Another Day was another little step further and now, with their new disc, just what we were hoping for ended up happening: a tremendous work from a band in an absolute state of grace.
But, unfortunately, one can’t speak of Clutching Stems without remembering that it is the first LP from the band after the loss of their drummer San Fadyl. And like in The Evangelist by Robert Forster (another wonder that came to be our number one in the lists of 2008), the disc gives off a beautiful melancholy that sounds, or we imagine that it does, like an implicit homage to their missing companion. And it does it without sinking in memory, it does it ringing, even optimistically; with a meditative and relaxed optimism, terribly beautiful.
The sudden start of the disc, its first five songs, already makes us touch the sky and obligates us to try to remember, without finding, something so beautiful in the last months or even years. “Clutching Stems” and “Oh Cristina” could be the themes that will enamor the soonest from this first lot, and from all of the disc, but “Light on the Narrow Gauge,” “Fallen and Falling,” and “Ignore the Bell” don’t fall far behind, maintaining the elegance that for years the Ladybug Transistor has not lost, and again reminding one of the pop classics cited above. After, the second half of the album only confirms that we are before something truly transcendent. “Caught Don’t Walk” could have been at the same time on an LP of Bacharach and of Prefab Sprout, “Into the Strait” has keyboards that could have once belonged to Felt, and “Life Less True” closes with a light fury of intensity. A disc that we won’t and don’t want to forget, and that situates the group, and its leader Gary Olson, with the greats of pop of the last ten years.
Clutching Stems, we were dreaming of it for years and now, finally, we have it here. And it is even better than we were imagining it, really thrilling." La Pagina De La Ladadora (Spain)
Four years have passed since the last Ladybug Transistor album, which came four years after its predecessor. That, combined with frequent lineup changes, is enough to make each album feel like a comeback and a reinvigoration, even if the band’s ‘60s-influenced, lazy-autumn-day, orchestral-pop sound hasn’t changed that much since it started out back in 1996. Gary Olson’s songwriting is consistent in approach, and consistently good. Still, their seventh album does feel like a rebirth—not because it’s drastically different from their other albums, but because it’s livelier in tone than the last couple, somehow particularly emotional in the lyrics and delivery, and as good overall as anything they’ve done before. It’s a cliché to say that certain contemporary pop music sounds timeless, but somewhere in its fabric, timelessness seems integral to what the Ladybug Transistor does, and does well. It’s music evocative of places and people, and the way we link emotions to the memory of them.
" Dave Heaton, PopMatters ("Best Indie-Pop of 2011")