In the mid-2000’s a Seattle-based band, the Fleet Foxes, was garnering attention with gorgeous harmonies, acoustic arrangements and pure four-part hymnic vocals. Their sound was an eclectic mix of folk, choral baroque and americana, interwoven with references to Crosby, Stills and Nash, Neil Young and the Beach Boys. Fleet Foxes released a five-track EP, ‘Sun Giant,’ in early 2008. This was followed by a full-length album, ‘Fleet Foxes’, in June. Music media and listeners alike immediately flew into overdrive, firing out rapturous remarks such as: ‘a landmark in American Music, an instant classic’ from The Guardian; ‘It’s like watching the sun rise over the distant mountaintops, over and over, familiar and captivating all at once’ from Paste Magazine; and, succinctly, from Q Magazine, ‘a pure pleasure’. I think the painting by Bruegel on the album cover says it all. With quaint song titles like ‘Meadowlarks’ and ‘Tiger Mountain Peasant Song’ plus lyrics to match, the album feels ye olde worldely. This is not a sparse album, unlike Bon Iver’s ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ released the same year. Instead, it’s jam-packed with lushness and depth – there’s a lot going on. Lead singer, Robin Pecknold, has a voice that I feel very safe with (unlike the uncomfortable vulnerability I experience when watching a contestant on ‘X-Factor’ or ‘Idol’ – it’s the price you pay). Robin is fully in control of the vocals and is supported beautifully by the rest of the skulk (ah, that’s a great word) of foxes.
One of the most popular tracks on ‘Fleet Foxes is the small but sweetly-formed ‘White Winter Hymnal’, which is a showcase of collective harmonies. Have a listen below. Personally, my favourite track from both the EP and LP is ‘Blue Ridge Mountains’ with its reflective theme of past closeness between two siblings. The video I’ve posted was filmed by La Blogotheque in a deserted wing of the Grand Palais. It opens with the band singing ‘Sun Giant’ in a Parisian park. ‘Blue Ridge Mountains’ starts at the 2.30 mark.
‘Helplessness Blues’, the Fleet Foxes sophomore album was released in May 2011. Robin Pecknold said this on Sub-Pop about it’s sound: ‘Musically it leans on country music a little bit more, in the slide guitar of songs like “Grown Ocean” and “Bedouin Dress” or “Helplessness Blues.” We used a number of new instruments including the 12-string guitar, the hammered dulcimer, zither, upright bass, wood flute, tympani, Moog synthesizer, the tamboura, the fiddle, the marxophone, clarinet, the music box, pedal steel guitar, lap steel guitar, Tibetan singing bowls, vibraphone, along with more traditional band instrumentation.’
And it shows. To my ear, this entire album bustles with movement. Sitting behind the main melodies in tracks such as ‘Cascades’, ‘Lorelai’ and ‘Helplessness Blues’ there is a constant restlessness, evoking images of mice running on wheels or hair-netted workers doing repetitive work in a tin can factory. It’s not obvious but it’s there:
In my post the other day I mentioned how much impact instrumental tracks in the middle of an album can have. They can be a hiatus from the lyrics, a chance to reflect and prepare. They often contain gorgeous and memorable melodies that set the tone of the entire album. ‘Cascades’ is one such track. It leads us deftly into the bittersweet ‘Lorelai’ (which Beatles and Dylan fans may find familiar) with it’s choral harmonies, strong central melody and, once again, background busyness.
This extramural, restless sound is one of the hallmarks of ‘Helplessness Blues’. I think it’s meant to represent the repetitive, stressful nature of life when all our protagonist yearns to do is run away and lead a simple existence. It’s an existential musing on what he perceives is important (a valuable life) compared with what is realistic, as the lyrics in ‘Helplessness Blues’ show:
I prefer this album to the earlier ‘Sun Giant’ and ‘Fleet Foxes’. I love it’s strong melodies and expansive, soaring vocals. When I first listened to it, it was a near-religious experience. I’ve heard it described as the folk music album for people who don’t like folk music. It’s way more than this and rightly deserves its place on countless best album lists all over the place.
As an aside, Josh Tillman, who was the drummer for the Fleet Foxes on this album, is also a talented man in his own right. He has a voice like warm honey and a caustic wit. More about him and his moniker, Father John Misty, in another post.