Fleet Foxes
Helplessness Blues



by Martine Balcaen USER (8 Reviews)
May 16th, 2011 | 112 replies | 6,979 views

Release Date: 2011 | Tracklist

Review Summary: ...simply a blip on their further rise as an influential band in the future of folk... So long as they capture their genuine flair back from whatever media source pressured them into handing it over in exchange for some flat radio-friendly riffs.

17 of 19 thought this review was well written

On the independent music circuit, the prospect of unleashing an album geared toward success frequently lies in three factors; timing, humility and the catchall, luck. For Seattle-born Fleet Foxes, the internet offered a kind hand to land them the latter, but their rise to "must-hear" status among broad folk and indie circles alike is largely attributed to the other two. Their self-titled debut saw the light in late 2008, right on time to join Bon Iver, The Tallest Man on Earth, Grizzly Bear and later, Mumford & Sons, among many others, to put neo-folk on the quasi-mainstream map. "Hip" qualifications aside, their unassuming, humble musical disposition is what made Fleet Foxes easy to love.

Nearly three years later, their docile charm is still not forgotten as excitement over the release of their second LP pours out from both the blogosphere and the mouths of fans worldwide. Some would say "absence makes the heart grow fonder", but the blunter crowd has adapted that saying into "HYPE". After a lull in successful releases in the same vein as Fleet Foxes, it's almost inevitable that many will fondly welcome Helplessness Blues like an old friend at the airport regardless of its quality because of the simple fact that Fleet Foxes, specifically Robin Pecknold's vocals just sound so gosh-darned enchanting.

Then there's the curse of the "sophomore slump", frequently brought on by the necessity to release something, anything, to stay relevant after interest for their previous work has waned. It leads to consider the possibility that they've already succumbed under pressure to record in order to stay in the ring this early in their career, especially after a recent post from the band's twitter read: Instead of feeling accomplished at finishing Helplessness Blues, my main thought is "Well, that buys us some time" #musiciswar.
Social media aside, Fleet Foxes did indeed have quite the difficult feat ahead of them; can Helplessness Blues rise to the height of its predecessor's success?

Some skepticism is justified as the album opens most abruptly on Montezuma, and it isn't just an error in sequencing. Throughout the album, there's a general trend to skip any sort of build-up and just move onto a sauntering rhythm guitar line sailing plainly through the bulk of every track. It's one thing in folk to amble along the length of a song for a certain effect of simplicity, it's another to expect simplicity to be a driving musical factor. Let us not gloss over the fact that all but two tracks here aren't haphazardly put together, anti-climactic stretches of what we'd of considered a skip-worthy filler song on Fleet Foxes.

When the band isn't dragging the same riff over a predictable and repeated vocal pattern, they're making ungracious and ill-fitting shifts, almost as an effort made to add variety to the flaccid production of Helplessness Blues while brusquely backhanding any sort of cohesiveness the album might've had otherwise. Dual-titled tracks like The Plains/Bitter Dancer and The Shrine/An Argument, while both being highlights on the album for their throwback to when Fleet Foxes actually developed their ideas, both sound like 2-3 different tracks that weren't even meant to be heard in succession.

The vocals are a whole other bag. Don't get me wrong, Robin Pecknold boasts a very distinguished tone of voice and one of the most pleasant and comforting, but the powerful harmonies on Fleet Foxes are part of what made it so memorable but constantly banging out identical-sounding chorus vocals for every song does not work in this band's favor. It's as if the band had run out of kitschy instrumental interjections (ie: strings on Bedouin Dress, flute on The Plains/Bitter Dancer) and there was nothing else to do but to add gratuitous amounts of background harmonies for "epic" effect. Even if the compositions were grand enough (they're not) in musical content to support these rich harmonies, Fleet Foxes would have still overstepped the amount of times we'd want to hear 4 different versions of Pecknold's voice carry the only melodic line a song has to offer. It's not as epic-sounding as it wants to allow and it really robs the listener of the demure nuances Pecknold's voice featured when the band understood the merit of having just one man's voice complement a song, instead of overpower it with harmony overkill.

The three closers are a saving grace for this album in that respect, and the switch is that they avoid sounding underwhelming by having less of the overused elements of the previous tracks, static harmonies, stagnant riffs and the same robust, pounding percussion over and over. The raw power of Pecknold as he wails "sunlight over me no matter what I do" on The Shrine/An Argument, followed by an impromptu freejazz section. The modesty of a single guitar and voice on Blue Spotted Tail. The surprisingly glorious effect of only having one voice sing Grown Ocean as the band actually contributes to the melody...

Those are the moments that make me shove away any notion that the Fleet Foxes are done with their stint in the indie VIP room and haven't just turned into a passable folk band you're only watching because a better band is next. They're still that better band, and Helplessness Blues needn't necessarily be a blow to their fantastic catalog, but simply a blip on their further rise as an influential band in the future of folk... So long as they capture their genuine flair back from whatever media source pressured them into handing it over in exchange for some flat radio-friendly riffs.

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Comments:Add a Comment 
May 16th 2011


i basically wrote this about a month ago, but had to re-write it after my computer crashed. completed entirely on an ipad. typos ahoy

criticism is welcome, since i've never written a review this negative before, especially for an album that's been generally well-received.

May 16th 2011


solid review and nice to see a 2.5 to balance things out. all those question marks are really distracting though i gotta say, and there are a few little typos here and there, so you should probably once over this. still, if you get rid of a few awkward sentences and weird formatting, i'll pos this thing

May 16th 2011


i don't even know they those question marks are there. trying to smooth this out as we speak... a little difficult to navigate on these stupid apple products.

EDIT: fixed a bunch of typos/question mark symbols and a couple sentences. do tell me if there's anything else i should tend to.

May 16th 2011


Album Rating: 3.5


May 16th 2011


Album Rating: 3.0

can't decide what I think of this album but I pos'd.

Digging: The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream

May 16th 2011


balc? neg

May 16th 2011


hated their first album, this is gold.

Staff Reviewer
May 16th 2011


Review is great, but I rather enjoy the album.

So neg, obv.

May 16th 2011


review is awful why would you give this a 2 i mean its at least a 4 fukin negd 2 hell

May 16th 2011


Album Rating: 4.5

Great review

May 16th 2011


RIP approval rating

wasn't even gonna post this when i'd finished it, actually. definitely not one of my best imo, thanks though!

May 16th 2011


your approval rating never had a chance


May 16th 2011


Album Rating: 5.0

this album is excellent, don't know what you're hearing

Staff Reviewer
May 16th 2011


What I meant to say was great for a Belgian/French-Canadian.

Creating an alt to neg.

May 16th 2011


Hey bal, fuck you.

But in all seriousness this is an excellent review, really excellent. Pos, although I disagree : (((((

Digging: Saintseneca - Dark Arc

Staff Reviewer
May 16th 2011


I went to neg but accidentally hit the pos button

My bad

Digging: L'Orange - The Orchid Days

May 17th 2011


i wish i liked this album. no really, i do.

May 17th 2011



May 17th 2011


Way to go balc, I can honestly say that this is some of the most fantastic writing I've seen on here in a long long time. For as long as this review is, I never once felt like it dragged on too long. Well done. Oh and the opening sentence of the fifth paragraph is pure, unadulterated magic haha.

one minor qualm - maybe it's just me, but the wording here seems really awkward:
Robin Pecknold boasts one of the most pleasant comforting voices recognizable
read it over and see what you think, maybe it's just hitting me in a funny way.

anyway, like I said, very nicely done

May 17th 2011


A very well written piece here, I enjoyed reading it sir.

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