Fleet Foxes
Helplessness Blues


4.0
excellent

Review

by Conrad Tao EMERITUS
April 25th, 2011 | 111 replies


Release Date: 2011 | Tracklist

Review Summary: There's nothing genuine in music anymore. Except, of course, when there is.

The first thing you notice about Helplessness Blues is how much fuller it sounds than Fleet Foxes' acclaimed debut - the instrumentation is beefier, the production is significantly warmer, and the melodies are more forthright. The second thing that stands out is the sadness that permeates every aspect of the album, from the title to the existentially confused words behind these songs. The bleak lyrics seem at first to be at odds with the expansive and welcoming sonic territory that the record so effortlessly inhabits, but over time, these two distinct aspects reveal themselves to be inexorably connected.

Nowhere is this more true than in the album's title track, easily one of the saddest songs I've heard all year. It opens with Robin Pecknold sounding resigned - or is he content? "I was raised up believing I was somehow unique / like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see / and now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be / a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me." These four lines, devastating in their simplicity, invite different interpretations - is this a political statement or a personal one? Is his acceptance of his inability to be a special shining star reluctant or willing? Perhaps more importantly, is it genuine? There's an air of uncertainty to these lyrics, emphasized by Pecknold's urgent cries of "I don't know what that will be" and "I don't know who to believe". As the song moves into its gorgeous final section, the music, having been previously moving in a quietly restless direction, settles comfortably into a lilting motif. It's a striking change, at first because of the abrupt change in meter, and later because of the shift in lyrical tone. "If I had an orchard, I'd work till I'm sore," the band sings in the stunning vocal harmonies they've been justifiably praised for. And then Pecknold sings one truly resigned final line: "Someday I'll be like the man on the screen."

At the risk of overstating its significance, "Helplessness Blues" is the album in microcosm. It may not be the record's best song in conventional terms - its transition from section to section could easily be viewed as ungainly - but it's a near-perfect summation of what this album is really about, and consequently what makes Helplessness Blues a strong album on the whole. There are moments scattered throughout the record that seem to fit nicely into preexisting stereotypes about sophomore albums - there's the really long song that appears towards the end of the tracklist, and there are the efforts to expand a sound clearly mapped out in the band's debut. Except that said lengthy track, "The Shrine / An Argument" is absolutely beautiful, and the moments where Fleet Foxes really branch out into new musical areas are mostly very successful. Towards the end of "The Shrine / An Argument" there's a gorgeous saxophone solo that recalls the avant-jazz stylings of Colin Stetson; it shouldn't work well, but it does, and it's heart-stopping. "Bedouin Dress" and "Grown Ocean" also represent notable evolvements of the band's musical aesthetic, and both of them benefit greatly from their more nuanced textures, whether they be impish fiddle lines or simply a much more robust and propulsive approach to rhythm.

Ambition is, of course, also accompanied by a whole new set of risks, and Helplessness Blues has its fair share of dull patches. But if it feels as if "Lorelai" could stand to be a bit shorter, it's primarily because I'd love for the rapturous middle section of "The Cascades" to go on forever. No, Helplessness Blues isn't flawless, but it's a distinctly more approachable work than its predecessor, which accomplished the unthinkable feat of being too pristine. In comparison, this album breathes more, makes more mistakes, and wears its heart on its sleeve. It's human. And sometimes, that's better than perfection.



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user ratings (1120)
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Comments:Add a Comment 
conradtao
Emeritus
April 25th 2011


2090 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

This review is brought to you by too much coffee and a maddeningly indecisive Mother Nature.

Oh, and this stream:

http://www.npr.org/2011/04/25/135550848/first-listen-fleet-foxes-helplessness-blues

Steoandnoodles
April 25th 2011


2832 Comments


Good review buddy. Going to hold off listening until release.

iFghtffyrdmns
April 25th 2011


7047 Comments


fantastic review conrad.
didn't particularly love their self titled so it'll probably be awhile before I get around to this guy.

Steoandnoodles
April 25th 2011


2832 Comments


As everyone knows; I thought their debut was a classic. This has a lot to live up to.

robin
Emeritus
April 25th 2011


4249 Comments


i like this band because his name is robin

interesting stuff conrad.

conradtao
Emeritus
April 25th 2011


2090 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Thanks, Robin. I... I actually don't know how much you'll like this. Unless, of course, you've already heard it!!

Steoandnoodles
April 25th 2011


2832 Comments


Fleet Foxes are the best folk act of our generation.
Sam Amidon comes close but because he doesn't write his own material (They're mostly Dock Boggs covers) I can't praise it as much as Fleet Foxes.

robin
Emeritus
April 25th 2011


4249 Comments


yeah i've heard it. i like it but not as much as the debut. i'm fairly sure that will change though after listening with your points in mind tbh. the whole sad thing. 3-3.5 at the moment tho.

Steoandnoodles
April 25th 2011


2832 Comments


Ah throw it a 3.5 or a 4 for the genre of folk music's sake. =)

AliW1993
Contributing Reviewer
April 25th 2011


7363 Comments

Album Rating: 2.5

I really don't get the appeal of this band :/

I'll give this a few more tries though, since they're a band I really want to like.

Irving
Staff Reviewer
April 25th 2011


7312 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Solid review Conrad, and I'm sure it'll be miles better than the bulk of reviews we're going to get on
this within the next 24 hours. That being said, it really does feel like a bit of a rush job. Your
points aren't as well thought out as they usually are, and the flow so very present on your previous
reviews - see tUnE-yArDs, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, and TKOL - is conspicuously absent here.
Might have been better to spend a bit more time on the write-up, because I've seen you do so
much
better.

Still - like I said - this was a solid job overall. Have a pos.

PS - Summary is also mildly confusing for me lol.

conradtao
Emeritus
April 25th 2011


2090 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Let me know if it makes you think any differently about the record, Robin. It might necessarily even be a matter of the album sounding "better" or "worse", but instead just a slightly different angle of looking at the songs. I dunno, food for thought, perhaps?

conradtao
Emeritus
April 25th 2011


2090 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Oh Irving, my heart feels like it's been stabbed.

Kidding, of course. Your constructive criticism is always so appreciated. =)

alachlahol
April 25th 2011


7501 Comments


gotta get out those reviews

Irving
Staff Reviewer
April 25th 2011


7312 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Oh Irving, my heart feels like it's been stabbed.

=( How can I make you feel better? =( =(

Steoandnoodles
April 25th 2011


2832 Comments


I'm pumped. I love me some Fleet Foxes. =)
Held of listening to this for so long.

conradtao
Emeritus
April 25th 2011


2090 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Lie to me and tell me the review is PERFECT, of course!! Why would you ever do anything else?!!!

Also, yes, I understand the confusion at the summary. It's just the way I've felt about the album ever since I first heard it, and I've had the summary in mind for about a week. My other opinions about the record have evolved somewhat, however.

Irving
Staff Reviewer
April 25th 2011


7312 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Lie to me and tell me the review is PERFECT, of course!! Why would you ever do anything else?!!!


Can I tell you that you're perfect instead, Conrad? #euwcreepy haha XD

For what it's worth I couldn't do what you've produced here. Even on your (relatively) weaker
reviews you've still got the bulk of the site's writers by the scruff of the neck. In other words -
you're seriously still one of the site's best writers, and I mean that. I've got money on you making
Staff in the next promotion. No jokes.

As Deviant would say, time to hold hands now!

QuestionableScum
April 25th 2011


93 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Quite like this album after the first listen. It is sitting at a 3.5, but it could go higher after a few more listens and I have more fully digested it.

Tyrael
April 25th 2011


20901 Comments


Solid review Conrad, this album makes me happy.



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