For the most part, the Ladybug Transistor has flown under the radar for its 16 years of existence. Frontman Gary Olson, with a cycling group of musicians, has quietly crafted some excellent pop records. And though words like “baroque” and “sweet” are often used in descriptions of the band’s sound, you can’t dismiss the Ladybug Transistor as some fangless, saccharin pop act. At its best — check 1999’s The Albemarle Sound, one of the finest pop records of the past two decades — Olson’s band is lush and playful, but reveals darker intricacies as you dig deeper into the heady mix of each song.
Clutching Stems, their first record since 2007’s Can’t Wait Another Day, is a tribute to a lost friend. Shortly after recording Can’t Wait Another Day, the band’s longtime drummer, San Fadyl, died suddenly of an asthma attack. It was a such a tragic loss that the band almost called it quits, but instead they crafted this album with Fadyl’s memory in mind. If Olson doesn’t directly address that loss — there are plenty of lines that suggest it without mentioning Fadyl outright — he tackles loss and heartache with a heartbreaking but subtle hand.
The most affecting touch, early on in the record, may come purely in the mix of these songs. While it still has the layers we’ve come to expect from the Ladybug Transistor — continuing the band’s slow move away from stately psychedelia to more lush, fluid arrangements — this may be the band’s most spare record to date. The first few songs, particularly the opening title track, push the drums way up in that mix. They are simple and propulsive, a clear tribute to their friend and a reminder to us what they’ve lost.
Clutching Stems works, though, because it is more about honoring than dreary lamenting. There’s disorienting grief here to be sure — “So lost in this place,” Olson pines at one point, “alone with the view” — but sounds rise up, Olson’s deep croon reaches for higher notes, for moments of beauty in the face of loss. On “Oh Christina” he dismisses both Joy Division and Neil Young, claiming he never agreed that love could either a) tear us apart or b) only break your heart. It’s a brilliant song in the middle of the record, one that recognizes the power of pop music while also dismissing this one-sided, and dark, view of love.
The album doesn’t ignore that heartache, as Olson weaves some dark lines into his bright pop songs, but the album never fully gives into despair. On closer “Life Less True,” you can feel the long grief process has taken its toll. “You don’t know what I’ve been though,” he insist, and goes on to admit “I don’t dream anymore.” But as Olson’s words run out on him — there’s a guitar solo where the chorus should be here — the music says what his voice can’t. The song works to a brilliant burst of horns and keys and drums. It’s the most untethered and vital the band sounds on the whole record, every player anywhere near the studio seems to be in there making a sound, whipping the record up one final time for a lost friend.
It’s a heartening finish for Clutching Stems, and this bright edge actually works to shed light on the album’s subtle but affecting shifts in mood. Without this sunburst of noise, you might not notice the darker edge of the strings on the excellent “Hey Jack I’m on Fire” or the foggy keys on the otherwise vibrant “Fallen and Falling.” It isn’t until you get to the end of this record that you can fully see all the places its been. On its surface, it is a brisk, neon-bright pop record, but to dig into it is to find something much more complicated and rewarding than that. It’s conflicted with muted joy and lingering sadness; it raises questions of grief and heartache without easy answers and manages to make a very personal grief into something universal yet still honest to the bone. Clutching Stems is the band’s finest record since The Albemarle Sound, and the kind of pop record that may break your heart, may even tear you apart, but it’s also generous and complex enough to put you back together in the end.