Review Summary: The next classic addition to America's great, historic folk canon.
The question of authenticity runs rampant throughout the history of America's folk canon. Since Francis J. Child, the great British folk song collector, traveled to America and based the Appalachian folk tradition off of his already established canon in Britain, the question of what qualifies as "folk" and "American" has bolstered, destroyed, or altered the perceptions of countless artists: Pete Seeger singing labor protest songs during the McCarthy era, Bob Dylan going electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, and Muddy Waters taking the Delta blues and fusing it with Chicago's industrialized urban energy.
Since the 1960s folk revival, however, authenticity plays almost no role in the discussion of "folk" music, as everything born in America falls under the ever-broadening genre tag. Tejano, Cajun, and Native American music now enjoy the same level of treatment as Appalachian folk, blues, and southern country did just a few decades ago. And that's not a bad thing.
But despite our post-modern take on what constitutes the American folk canon, young folk musicians and their critics lack a common knowledge of folk's storied history. Indeed, every new solo folk singer, from Conor Oberst to Kristian Matsson, gets compared to Bob Dylan, the archetypal forefather of everything folk. Yet Dylan, who cemented his own image in Woody Guthrie's wayward wanderer, knew his place in folk history. Although someone who focused heavily in his early career on protest song, Dylan notes in his autobiography, Chronicles, Vol. 1
, where he truly focused his attention:
"The madly complicated modern world was something I took little interest in. It had no relevancy, no weight. I wasn’t seduced by it. What was swinging, topical, and up to date for me was stuff like the Titanic sinking, the Galveston flood, John Henry driving steel, John Hardy shooting a man on the West Virginia line. All this was current, played out, and in the open. This was the news that I considered, followed, and kept tabs on (20)."
Given this disregard of temporality, perhaps the best modern equivalent to Dylan is not Matsson or Oberst, but instead Fleet Foxes, and Robin Pecknold in particular. "Lie to me if you will/At the top of Barringer Hill," sings Pecknold, referring to the obscure hill in central Texas where mineralogists routinely traveled to find rare earth minerals. Here's the rub for Pecknold: Lake Buchanan swallowed the hill in 1937, and it remains underwater to this day. By referencing the non-existent, Pecknold detaches himself from the any sense of time.
The image of Fleet Foxes has always been that of mountain men -- outcasts stuck in a woodland cabin, seemingly transported here from centuries ago. Pecknold furthers this image by covering songs like "False Knight on the Road" and "Silver Dagger", songs that date back to the early 20th century and perhaps earlier. It is an image that has led critics to call them "timeless" and "authentic." Pecknold's attention to the past blends with the band's composite sound of shapenote-inspired Appalachian harmonies, acoustic instruments mixed with sparse warm electronic sounds. And indeed, as folk revivalists, Fleet Foxes are nothing but authentic.
continues this trend. Pecknold's lyrics make no attempt to modernize; "Bedouin Dress" makes a Yeats reference when he sings "One day at Innisfree/One day that's mine there." Yeats, an early 20th century Irish poet, wrote a poem called "The Lake Isle of Innisfree", describing a bucolic place of solace:
"I WILL arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade."
Herein lies Pecknold's inspiration for the entire album, an unsurprising theme for someone who describes himself as suffering from "social anxiety." Constantly, we find Pecknold continually wanting to climb back into his shell, or perhaps to his orchard, as apples are a key image in many songs on the album. "If I had an orchard, I'd work 'till I'm sore," he repeats on the title track after expressing his wish to be no more than "a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me."
Perhaps most telling is the memorable line in "The Shrine/An Argument", the band's most experimental work to date. "Sunlight over me no matter what I do," he sings, no, screams
in frustration, allowing his voice to rasp for the first time in memory. The song ends with a strange, free-jazz inspired bass clarinet solo over unconventional tremolo chord planing. Fleet Foxes use new instruments and sounds on Helplessness Blues
to expand their seemingly all-encompassing American style.
Some of these new inclusions are more logical, such as the violin melody in "Bedouin Dress" or the fiery acoustic jam session ending "Sim Sala Bim". It's the classic sound of a band evolving into their prime, trying anything they want and making it work every time. Despite the expansion into more myriad territories, nothing on Helplessness Blues
is a throwaway track; nothing lacks in quality. Helplessness Blues
, without a doubt, surpasses their first album and their EPs by leaps and bounds.
Pecknold hinted that the band took less time rehearsing their vocals during the recording process, going for a more raw sound as opposed to the almost too perfect harmonies on their previous two releases. Sonically, that might not be apparent at first, but the end of the album, the a cappella section of "Grown Ocean", hints at that more organic process. While the harmonies are still essentially perfect, there is a sense of exploration in the ensemble sound, in its rubato, free-form nature.
In that same section, there is a larger statement still. Pecknold has expressed his views on the value of music and its place in society by endorsing and encouraging music piracy. Pecknold needs no complete statement to sell, no artistic manifesto to exert. So it comes as no surprise that the harmonic progression does not cadence as the listener might expect; the ear wants one more chord to resolve the progression, but Pecknold and his backup singers simply end. There's nothing more to say.