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.