Review Summary: Saying simple things with profound sounds.
Some recording artists make music simply for profit, others for fame. And some artists approach making music as a quintessential artistic ejaculation. The power of the effectiveness of music is how it can move you to tears, provoke goose bumps, or send a tender chill down your spine. But not everyone makes music that touch people in that way. When Fleet Foxes self-titled debut album was released, it took the indie music world by storm; it was rich, delicate, ambitious, and unique.
Contemporary folk music for the past 10 years has been a humble nod to all that came before it. But Fleet Foxes isn’t satisfied with simply alluding to its influences; it takes on folk full-throttle with intentions of enriching a genre that was more popular with its parent’s generation. Most impressive about the band’s music is its authenticity and mature sound. Instead of its music sounding like karaoke covers of ‘60s folk songs, Fleet Foxes took listeners straight to the ‘60s with an astounding vicarious listening experience.
However, this isn’t the ‘60s; this is the 21st century. And unfortunately popular music today doesn’t have the same quality or substance as pop music from the past, so when artists like Fleet Foxes come along, ears perk up. With all of this said, the bar was raised pretty high in regards to fans’ expectations for Helplessness Blues.
Influences from Roy Harper, Van Morrison, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash can be heard, but the band wants to present listeners with a modern alternative to what is trendy in the heart of the gentrified indie subculture. Folk doesn’t have the same urban cool appeal that perhaps experimental electronica might have. But Fleet Foxes are men of nature; exemplifying that through its music with an intricate artistic aesthetic is how it distinguishes itself from the urban hipster stereotype.
Robin Pecknold sings like a humble man with a big heart who only wants to savor the beauty and simplicity life has to offer him. The album opens with the ethereal “Montezuma,” in which simple life contemplations are sang with a robust tenderness. “Sim Sala Bim” has a shifting song structure, while “Battery Kinzie” treads safer territory.
“The Plains / Bitter Dancer” starts with serene psychedelia and grows into gorgeous three-part harmonizing that is just as much a signature trait of Fleet Foxes as it is of Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
In the title track Pecknold sings, “If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore/And you would wait tables and soon run the store.” He carries on with the album’s theme of yearning for life’s more rewarding simplicity, in contrast to wild rock star misadventures that many other musicians fall victim to. He strips himself of pretension with the opening lines, “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.” In Kill Bill Vol. 2, Uma Thurman’s character, The Bride, tried to escape The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad by settling into humble anonymity as the wife of a record store owner. Pecknold isn’t an assassin and his former boss isn’t out to try to murder him, but the hungry desire for an easier living is at least somewhat comparable.
“Lorelai” and “Someone You’d Admire” lean more towards mediocrity, but mediocrity from Fleet Foxes is still exceptional compared to mediocrity from its peers. But the band doesn’t aim to put listeners to sleep, it aims to captivate.
“The Shrine / An Argument” is one of the best songs the band has ever recorded. Pecknold instantaneously shifts from a passionate yell of “Sunlight over me, no matter what I do” to the delicate croon of “apples in the summer all cold and sweet/Everyday a’passin complete.” The second part of the song explodes into an experimental free-jazz cacophony, with strings gracefully layered underneath.
“Blue Spotted Tail” is gentle and intimate, while the closing track “Grown Ocean” is quintessential indie-folk forest music; festive, yet contained. The song softly ends acapella, similarly to “Oliver James” (the closing track on Fleet Foxes).
The sacredness of simplicity seems to be the reoccurring theme throughout the album. It deals with tackling life from a post-coming-of-age perspective. Fleet Foxes have perfected translating simple expressions into grandiose folk epics. Its music is sophisticated, yet incredibly organic. And although the band is aware that it is a diamond in the rough that is the music industry, it insists on staying true to its humble down-to-earth modesty.
(Originally published at: http://swagexpress.com/2011/06/03/fleet-foxes-helplessness-blues-album-review/)