Highlights: Clutching Stems, Light On The Narrow Gauge, Breaking Up On The Beat
Clutching Stems is certainly one of the lesser indie-pop records of 2011, but that’s not saying it’s weak or anything. It’s just ridiculously, almost painstakingly understated, and if you don’t listen closely, there’s a great chance it will pass you by completely. If you do hang on to it, though, you’ll start noticing refined, well-written melodies and exquisite, heartfelt hooks that the band has always been so good at.
It’s interesting that The Ladybug Transistor is sometimes compared to The Go-Betweens. While I think I see where that comes from (there’s this unmistakable poetic tunefulness running through all their records), it also reveals The LB’s main deficiency: lack of charisma. Because no amount of beautiful tunes can infuse your music with the kind of personality those two Australians had (Forster still has it, of course). But then again: if you enjoy Clutching Stems for what it’s worth, you’ll hear worthy, tasteful songwriting that will keep disclosing its understated, unobtrusive power with each new listen. The instrumentation is as lovely as ever: cozy acoustic guitars, clever piano/keyboard/organ lines, occasional brass. Nothing jumps out, but gentle, lilting songs like “Breaking Up On The Beat” are catchy in a most classic indie-pop, slightly twee way.
Several listens into this album, I can safely state that the band hasn’t lost any of its pop sensibilities: it’s just that these sensibilities have been toned down, made less palpable (The Albemarle Sound, their best album, was a lot more immediate). Charm over edge occasionally, true, but as long as it's clutching 'stems' and not 'at straws' - I'm fine.