Review Summary: For what it’s worth, Fleet Foxes have made an earnest start to the summer, but they shouldn’t define the year with it.
Fleet Foxes shouldn’t be a difficult bunch to write about. Following their Sun Giant EP
(which saw a release earlier this year) with their self-titled debut, Fleet Foxes
is the album that I was fully expecting: an unabashed neo-folk summer album, rooted in Pet Sounds
-era Beach Boys with comparisons almost exclusively reserved to Crosby, Stills and Nash. Like the album, these comparisons should be taken lightly, since Fleet Foxes
seems to be in a league all its own in terms of structure, especially for a debut and especially for a band only two years out of the gate.
So why, exactly, is it so difficult to write about Fleet Foxes? I’ve been working my way through the locomotive refrain of “Ragged Wood” and smoky tales of “Meadowlarks” for weeks, hoping each time that the impact is stronger than the last. It’s obvious that this debut is the work of musicians with a long lifespan in front of them (the oldest is 21), and the delicacies to Fleet Foxes
are plentiful. But for their first major outing, following a less finely-polished EP, Fleet Foxes have created what really amounts to window dressings: songs that lure us in, tuck us into bed, and stumble to keep us there. With Sun Giants
, the songs came off as folk defined by the sheen of indie pop; in Fleet Foxes
, the band ups that ante and gains an annoying precociousness in the process.
Which isn’t to say that Fleet Foxes
is anything other than a warranted listen. Opener "Sun It Rises” begins with a country-folk sing-a-long tactic before smoothly transitioning into the reverb-washed acoustic guitars, frontman Robin Pecknold’s angelic vocals treating every passage like a hymn. This style seems exasperated by the second track, the appropriately titled “White Winter Hymnal,” but the poppy vocal melodies that become an almost obsessive point of reference for the album are infectious. The spacious, suspended textures in “Heard Them Stirring” make appropriately suspenseful folklore, while a last act progression into rollicking sunny melodies is hampered only by the layers of Pecknold’s wails. He’s positively charming in “Your Protector,” a glorified western complete with his wispy sermonizing: “You run with the devil.”
But once you’ve made it past all the meticulous chord progressions, all the smoky refrains, and all the ways a verse can be textured, there’s not much to dig into with Fleet Foxes
. There are a great number of chances for these guys to wring emotion out of their sturdy Americanized folk-rock and there are few that they actually take. The piercing clean-picking in “Blue Ridge Mountains” is a bright spot in an otherwise forgettable tune, Pecknold standing on the threshold of becoming just another thin layer to the window dressing. In “He Doesn’t Know Why,” a flavorful track lined with pianos and filled to the brim with passion, Pecknold grabs a hold of the last act and its battle march with gusto, but he fails to make it stick, and it’s artfully undermined by a eastern-influenced piano outro.
Much has been made about the album’s closer, the beautifully barren “Oliver James,” and for good reason. It’s the one track that resonates emotionally throughout the shallow Fleet Foxes
, Pecknold drawing a stark cynicism to his cries that brings attention to the dark melody. Had the rest of the album followed a similar path, finding footing in a more downplayed setting, it might have come across as something more than the pretty shell it is. There’s a huge promise to Fleet Foxes
, one that can’t be ignored, but Pecknold and the rest of the guys haven’t tapped into it yet. For what it’s worth, Fleet Foxes
is an earnest start to the summer, but shouldn’t define the year when it ends.