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.
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.