June 12, 2012
As promised in my earlier album review, an update to my review of Beach House’s new album Bloom, examining the vinyl record release (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). Like any decent record maximized to highlight the audio depth of the format, the 50-minute Bloom has been spread across two platters that turn at 45 rpm. Besides that, as noted in earlier posts, Victoria Legrand, the band’s singer and keyboardist, revealed that Beach House recorded this, it’s fourth album, to tape. An analog source via an analog medium is always the best at capturing the subtleties of any studio recording, i.e. “the warmth” everyone talks about when referring to vinyl.
Bloom certainly rises to the occasion in its vinyl format. The moment Legrand’s voice appears, the effect on a proper sound system will make your heart skip a beat. The clarity on the vinyl is extraordinary, from the complex subtle range of resonance in the clang of the metallic beat that opens “Myth” to the subtle twitter in Legrand’s warble. Where the mp3s had some ambiguity in the mix, on vinyl, the lyrics come across much clearer, as if Legrand is whispering them right into your ear. You can even hear the soft, subtle smack of her lips as she says “people” in “Other People.”
The record also grants the band’s dense instrumentation much more room to breath and reverberate with little distortion. For a band known as a shining example of the dream pop genre, the effect of vinyl favors the dense sound while also not compromising it. When the instruments pile up at the start of “Wild,” the music is almost a new experience compared to the mp3 version, which I spent studying for months before I heard the vinyl. The rhythm track alone is a revelation. It pulses along on a steady, spacious beat featuring a diverse array of sources. It includes a tambourine, a flat canned Casio-like rhythm track and the soft pillowy beat of toms.
“Lazuli” opens with the nice warm hiss of the recording and flows right out from the fade out from “Wild.” Another great thing about vinyl, is you will get no annoying little digital jumps that you must tolerate when stringing mp3s together. Tracks flow organically from one moment to the next. It’s very natural and of essence to the record.
If there is one protest I have about vinyl is the need to get up and switch sides, interrupting the flow of an album. It’s double worse when it comes to double albums. However, all the breaks between the four sides of Bloom actually work. By the time you get to Side 3 and the creeks of the insects start, it makes for a genius moment of starting the music anew after a pause to swap platters. The mp3 version has the chirps of the cicadas at the end of “Troublemaker,” but they clearly work to better effect on the vinyl as they kick off Side 3, just ahead of “New Year:” a bit of nature before fading into the breathy sighs and churning keyboard that open the track.
Finally of note: my favorite track, the closer: “Irene.” The pounding of Daniel Franz on the bass drum as Alex Scally pummels his electric guitar on the way to the song’s epic tangle of guitar lashings and organ drones that grows more ecstatic with each refrain of Legrand’s luscious, patient declaration of “It’s a Strange Paradise” never sounded more dynamic.
Unique to the vinyl, “Irene” ends with a series of looping clicks and surface noise, which probably depends on how clean you keep your needle. The only way to stop it and continue to the next untitled, “hidden” track requires you to physically pick up the needle and put it back down. This marks the seven minutes of silence on the mp3 and CD versions, before the hidden track appears. It’s takes some effort, but again there’s a pay off to working with a proper stereophonic system. It’s the only song on Bloom that features Legrand’s voice bouncing back and forth on your headphones or between your speakers.
There are many special moments to the vinyl, which is pleasantly presented in a wide, embossed cover sleeve (the white dots are raised on the surface). Inside are two heavy insert sleeves with evocative photography on flat-finish cardboard. Inside each of those is another sleeve with lyrics and song titles. It also includes a card with a download code for an MP3 version of the album. The vinyl is thick 180-gram weight for better, lasting sound quality.
A final note on the vinyl version: There are also two limited edition versions to look out for. Some were manufactured on white vinyl. A sticker on the wrap denotes this version as the “Loser” edition, and was available to those who pre-ordered the album on Sub Pop on a first-come, first-served basis. It has since sold out. There is also an even more rare glow-in-the-dark edition. Only 250 of those were released worldwide (300 manufactured, according to Sub Pop’s website). It also has a silver sticker of the wrap that states “Special Edition GLOW vinyl.” Here’s the only picture I found of it opened on-line from Bull City Records:
So, colored vinyl, especially glow-in-the-dark, makes for a nice gimmick to boost the value of the record, but audiophiles are sure to win no matter the color of Bloom‘s vinyl because, once again, Beach House and Sub Pop Records have created a great-sounding record for quality turntables.
Note: Sub Pop Records provided a review copy of this record for the purposes of this review.
Too often, lately, I have heard lush, layered records only to feel dizzy and nauseous by the end. So-called chill wave has often been a culprit. The redundancies and piercing electronics of bands like Washed Out and Neon Indian annoy more than sooth these ears. Then you have cutesy retro bands like Cults: more high-pitched convolutedness. I found myself hard-pressed to find a decent record last year due to all the self-indulgent, shallow noise hyped by the taste-makers.
Then, this year, a brilliant, refreshing aural experience came along in the form of Bloom by Baltimore-based Beach House. The band has long been recognized for its do-no-wrong dream pop, a genre of music that emerged in the late eighties thanks to bands as divergent as the ethereal Cocteau Twins to the noisy My Bloody Valentine. But even those pioneering bands’ records often felt difficult to endure all the way through. Beach House’s fourth album further proves it has the know-how to balance layered, driving sounds with stark, spare musical moments with a delicate touch.
Over two months ago, the band released “Myth” as a free stream and download on the Internet as a teaser to the new album. Singer/keyboardist Victoria Legrand called it a “gateway,” as it also opens the new album. A scratchy beat and the flat ding of a bell offers a deceptively simple opening for a few seconds until the trill of high-ranged keys on an organ, accompanied by Alex Scally’s equally athletic vibrato harmony on a steady-handed electric guitar, somersaults in to overtake the lead. Legrand’s voice joins in as the steady thud of Daniel Franz’ drums grow restless, pounding on in double time. With a booming, patient voice Legrand sings, “Drifting in and out/You see the road you’re on.” The second she sings the first note, a deep hum from the other end of an organ rumbles in accompaniment. Halfway through the song, Scally heralds a change in tone with the lethargic, resonant strum of his instrument like a wave blowing apart on the rocks of a craggy shore. Legrand sings strong and large with a slight echo effect decorating her voice turning the words only slightly unintelligible. Certain words are not completely clear, especially during the chorus. But that is the abstract charm of this record, begging the listener to fill in the gaps with his or her own hearing and interpretation. A few strums later, and the song returns to its driving form for a moment before closing out on ecstatic tremolo guitar work.
“Wild” seems to have a similar construct, but the distinctions are in the details. It opens with a mysterious hiss and hum that could be the processed howl of an organ or the wind across the surface of the ocean. A stuffy, tinny beat appears before a swell of cymbals heralds Scally’s guitar, driving along in cascading licks that chime with a brilliance many might have heard in a song by the Cure. Legrand’s singing is more obscured, which rolls along like the shimmer of pulsing, undulating waves on the surface of the sea. It ends once again with Scally’s tremolo on the higher-end of the fret board. Legrand’s organ offers more of an ambient, drone effect— humming and shimmering chords below the ecstatic work of Scally and the pounding, deep, relentless beat by Franz.
The third track, which already saw release as a 7-inch single for Record Store Day 2012, also arrives with a distinct, spare intro only to be coated in layers of luscious sounds. As a processed electronic pulse and melody is overtaken by swelling organ chords and the boom of Franz’ drum kit, Legrand’s voice finally does not even pretend to sing in English, just pulsing, soft sighs of “huhs.” It makes for another luscious moment, but this time missing Scally’s guitar for the first half of the song. However, his licks return as the song strips back its wall of organs, to bring back the canned electro opening, providing Scally space to offer a beautiful, if subdued gem of a moment on rolling, sliding guitar. “Like no other, you can’t be replaced,” Legrand sings repeatedly, as the song calmly heads towards its fade out.
Three songs in, and the album has only offered a dynamism and familiarity that brings comfort instead of inducing nausea. Beach House crafts songs with a patience and deliberation that highlights and celebrates the players’ talents without sacrificing the entirety of the experience. Bloom never seems to falter, offering one aural treat after another. “The Hours” features a standout hook: a duel between Legrand’s pulsing organ and Scally’s patient slide guitar. Thrown in here and there throughout the album are subtle field recordings. The distant sound of kids on the beach and whispers of “something” or nothing at all open “the Hours.” The sound of cicadas often heard in exterior scenes of Japanese movies appears to cap off “Troublemaker” before disappearing with an odd whistle to make way for the chiming guitar and sighing voices of “New Year.” These are genius little moments that break up the coldness of the interior of a studio or, worse, the zeros and ones of a computer file. Bloom is the sound of nature and the musicians clearly understand their humble roles as channels to the sublime power of music.
The crowning achievement arrives during the trio (or quartet?) of tracks that cap off the album. “Wishes” opens on a soft, spare beat, like many of Bloom’s tracks. The band layers on the melodies with patience: the swell of a high-pitched organ chord, the patter of a canned rhythm track, the noodle of keys, the loop of a guitar line. Chords from sighing organs build as the voices pile up and overlap. Even a masculine voice appears to harmonize for a bit. Scally’s guitar detours into a driving, Gothic hook, pauses a moment to allow Legrand space to sing the chorus and returns with a high-pitched tremolo. The song turns back to its driving layers of melody, and there is a distinct pause for silence after the fade out.
“On the Sea” takes the album into a maintained, spare melody unheard of in quality until now. It fades in like a light gradually illuminating the darkness. Only a ringing guitar and sprightly piano melody bound along as Legrand sings, “Out on the sea we’d be forgiven…” Franz offers a persistent thump on the bass drum like the click of a metronome. The only intricate rhythm is the persistent melody of piano and guitar. A minute in and Scally’s tremolo work breaks it down and another shimmering hum emerges subtly from the depths. The song becomes steadily ecstatic as the twirls of minimal, airy organs build like the persistent repetition of the music of Philip Glass. Legrand’s voice is almost operatic as the music swells and then eases back to the same, spare opening. It fades to give way to the rumble of what again sounds like the wind slicing across the surface of the sea.
The hiss continues as “Irene” starts forming on the swelling hum of what sounds like the deep rumble of a Farfisa or Harmonium organ. An old, canned scratchy beat appears as the minimalist pulse of a guitar persists in a dynamic pull and tug, as if waiting to explode only to recede again. There is a little climb to bright melody before a detour back to the minor-key tug-of-war of dynamics. “Irene” seems to expand and reduce in dynamics until the layers of melodies pause, allowing Scally to explore every stroke of his electric guitar. He repeats and repeats and repeats each stroke. Every lash is a growing mark of anticipation toward the edge of climax. “It’s a strange paradise,” sighs Legrand, as other layers of equally repetitive melodies emerge and coat each other, unfolding in a patient, droney jam session of swelling organs, intricate guitar lines and splashing crashes of cymbals. As the sound expands on each refrain with Scally’s vicious tremolo, Legrand slowly and rhythmically repeats: “It’s a strange paradise.” The band seems to delight in exploring a simple groove that grows more entrancing with each refrain. It grows over the final two-and-a-half minutes of the six-and-a-half minute song to peter off suddenly in one last quiver of tremolo that echoes away into a fade out.
The finale of “Irene” is so ecstatic that the band grants the listener seven minutes of silence before a little tape hiss arrives to apply the bandage after the aural gutting from such a din of ecstasy. A steady tap of a drum beat fades in, and the quiet quaver of guitar accompanied by the high-pitched pulse of an organ emerge. Legrand’s voice bounces rapidly from speaker to speaker in an enhanced stereophonic effect distinctive from the other songs on Bloom. This hidden track is spare but seems to come from another dimension. It offers a quiet moment of relief at the end of one of Beach House’s grandest accomplishments. It has been a couple of years since this listener has heard an album that offered as complete a listening experience as Bloom.
Finally, on the vinyl format of this album, I have yet to hear it, but Legrand mentioned recording a lot of the album to tape, and of course, the band did enter a proper studio (Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas) to spend seven weeks recording Bloom. Audiophiles agree analog tape is the best source for analog vinyl. Sub Pop have promised to send a copy of the double vinyl soon, so expect this post to see an up-date after a spin on the home hi-fi. Edit: the up-date has been posted: Vinyl review: Beach House – ‘Bloom’
Miami area tie-in: Local Miami-based indie record shop Sweat Records will host “The Bloom Happy Hour Release Party,” on the album’s official release date, this Tuesday, May 15, from 5 to 7 p.m. They will offer complimentary drinks for those 21 and over whilst playing the CD in its entirety. Attendees can also expect special prizes from Sub Pop Records. (Note: Sub Pop supplied an advance copy of Bloom in early April for the purpose of this review and the linked interviews with Legrand).
Not many indie artists or labels know how to do vinyl right. When they do, it is worth noting. Prepare for Beach House to release its new album via Sub Pop Records on May 15. Bloom, the dream pop duo’s fourth album, will see release in the usual CD and MP3 formats. But, as the members of Beach House recorded on tape, it is the vinyl that will do their luscious brand of music the most justice.
I spoke to Beach House’s singer and keyboardist, Victoria Legrand, last month before she and her songwriting partner, guitarist Alex Scally, headed out on tour in support of the new album, with Dennis Franz once again providing drums and percussion. Two stories resulting from this interview have already appeared in the “Miami New Times. One was a blog piece that highlighted a snippet of our near 40-minute conversation over the phone: “Beach House’s Victoria Legrand Talks ‘Myth,’ Music on Vinyl, and Rituals.” Read it by clicking on the Crossfade logo below:
The next article was a longer feature piece that appeared as the lead story of the music section in the print edition of the paper, earlier this week. She spoke about the band’s return to a rather large venue in Miami Beach after playing it only as an opening act for Vampire Weekend, just a year-and-a-half ago. That was when I first heard Beach House, and in my opinion, they stole the show (Beach House seal the deal opening for Vampire Weekend). She also gave some insight into some as-yet unheard tracks from the new album. Read it by clicking on the “Miami New Times” logo below:
As usual in my conversations with musicians, I could not use everything we talked about in those two pieces alone. Some highlights included the detail Legrand offered into the recording of Bloom, which resulted from seven weeks of sessions at Sonic Ranch Studios in Tornillo Texas, during the Fall of 2011. Just as they did with 2010’s Teen Dream, Legrand and Scally once again hired Chris Coady as co-producer. “They make it really easy to just be there and just do your thing,” she said of the studio. “That’s really all an artist can ask for. It’s not how fancy or anything it is. For us, it’s always been about the equipment, the soundboard. We recorded on two-inch tape like we did the last record, so a lot of it’s on tape.”
Audiophiles know that the ideal source for analog vinyl is, of course, analog tape. Legrand recognizes that, as well. “Tape has a certain thing to it,” she noted. “It’s just the way you handle it. The way you treat it, how hard you drive the takes or whatever. It’s just like this amazing material. It can do really awesome things with sounds … There’s still elements of eight track on this album and certain instruments that we use, but it’s always been part of our sound. Everyone uses computers at certain points, but I just feel like … some people say that you can’t tell the difference, but I think you can. I think you can feel something definitely different.”
You can read much more of my conversation with Legrand in the Q&A and story for the “Miami New Times” linked above. One last thing she clarified: Though I note she is the niece of famed film composer Michel Legrand in an earlier post on this blog (New restoration of ‘A Trip to the Moon’ heads to cinemas with score by Air), she said: “I’m related, but I have no relationship with him. We don’t talk,” she added with a laugh. “I think I saw him when I was 4 years old. I think he’s like in his 80s now? Still tours, but he’s had pretty much no influence in my life in terms of music and family. It’s probably just genetic, honestly.”
The band has just begun its tour for Bloom. The remaining tour dates are as follows:
05/05 – Carrboro, NC @ Cat’s Cradle
05/06 – Charleston, SC @ Music Farm*
05/08 – Miami Beach, FL @ The Fillmore*
05/09 – Orlando, FL @ Beacham Theater*
05/10 – Jacksonville, FL @ Freebird Live*
05/11 – Birmingham, AL @ The Bottletree*
05/12 – Athens, GA @ Georgia Theatre*
05/13 – Asheville, NC @ The Orange Peel*
05/15 – New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
05/23 – Brighton, UK @ The Haunt
05/24 – London, UK @ Village Underground
05/25 – Belgium, BE @ De Kreun
05/26 – Amsterdam, NL @ Melkweg
05/27 – Berlin, DE @ Volksbuhne
05/29 – Paris, FR @ Maronguinerie
05/31 – Dudingen, CH @ Bad Bonn Kilbi Festival
06/02 – Barcelona, ES @ Primavera Sound
06/03 – Montpellier, FR @ Le Rockstore
06/04 – Bordeaux, FR @ Theatre Barby
06/05 – Nantes, FR @ Stereolux
06/06 – Lyon, FR @ Epicrerie Moderne
06/07 – Blarritz, FR @ L’Atabal
06/08-09 – Porto, PT @ Optimus Primavera Sound
07/01 – San Diego, CA @ House of Blues **
07/03 – Los Angeles, CA @ El Rey Theatre **
07/06 – Aspen, CO @ Belly Up Aspen **
07/07 - Albuquerque, NM @ Sunshine Theater **
07/09 – Tulsa, OK @ Cain’s Ballroom **
07/10 – Lawrence, KS @ Liberty Hall **
07/11 – St. Louis, MO @ The Pageant **
07/12 – Memphis, TN @ Minglewood Hall **
07/13 - Louisville, KY @ Forecastle Festival
07/15 – Chicago, IL @ Pitchfork Music Festival
07/17 – Indianapolis, IN @ The Vogue **
07/18 – Pontiac, MI @ The Crofoot Ballroom **
07/19 – Cleveland, OH @ House of Blues **
07/20 – Columbus, OH @ Newport Music Hall **
07/21 – Pittsburgh, PA @ Mr. Small’s Theatre **
07/23 – New York, NY @ Central Park Summer Stage
08/31-09/02 – North Dorset, UK @ End of the Road Festival
* w/ Zomes
** w/ Wild Nothing
Lou Barlow keeps spirit alive returning to band that kicked him out (Part 2 of 2 of Indie Ethos exclusive)
January 17, 2012
Before labels like “alternative,” “emo,” “lo-fi” and “grunge” became easy go-to words for lazy rock writers, somewhere in the northeast of the United States, a trio of teenagers began making indescribable music they liked. It was 1984, and these were the top 10 singles of the year:
1. “When Doves Cry”…..Prince
2. “What’s Love Got To Do With It”…..Tina Turner
3. “Jump”…..Van Halen
4. “Karma Chameleon”…..Culture Club
5. “Like A Virgin”…..Madonna
7. “Owner Of A Lonely Heart”…..Yes
8. “Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now)”…..Phil Collins
9. “Footloose”…..Kenny Loggins
10. “Ghostbusters”…..Ray Parker, Jr.
(check out the bottom 90 here)
Was a revolution in popular music ever due (like today’s pop music scene). It was among these hits that Lou Barlow, J Mascis and Emmett Jefferson “Murph” Murphy III created a little band called Dinosaur Jr. while attending college in Amherst, Massachusetts. After an odd debut album in 1985 that went nowhere and may have just been ahead of its time with its mix of shoegaze, goth, hardcore, country, folk and classic rock, soon enough Dinosaur Jr. would become an iconic group of the nineties-era alternative rock scene.
Nowadays, Dinosaur Jr. is one of a handful of bands referred to as touchstones of an era that also produced Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the Pixies. Dinosaur has found a resurgence recently, as the original line-up has not only returned (that was already two new albums ago) but has maintained itself for an up-coming third album, so despite Barlow’s strong language below (pardon the “F” bombs and read the entire Q&A before drawing conclusions, cyber people), he and his mates have certainly found a way to maintain a creative spark among any so-called artistic differences. It must also be a good thing that Barlow stays busy with his own solo music, other collaborations, including a resurrected Sebadoh, the band Barlow created practically alongside his gig in Dinosaur Jr. Now, it too will record a new album (read the scoop at Backstagerider.com).
If you read Part 1 of this interview with Dinosaur Jr.’s bassist/part-time vocalist Barlow (Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow talks beginning with ‘Weed Forestin’ [soon to be reissued on LP]: an Indie Ethos Exclusive [Part 1 of 2]), you will have noticed I have already touched on the relevance of the band during the popular years of alternative rock, as well as the slightly lesser known Sebadoh. Barlow was with Dinosaur Jr. for its first three, and arguably most acclaimed, albums. He was then kicked out, the circumstances of which, Barlow is refreshingly candid about in the Q&A below. Likewise, Barlow also offers his feelings about working with Eric Gaffney, the other half of the original Sebadoh, the band Barlow started after Dinosaur Jr. Finally, Barlow shares his regret of having Sub Pop reissue Sebadoh’s Bakesale on vinyl (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon … you’ll also be supporting Barlow and Sub Pop). Why would he regret having reissued the record often referred to as the definitive Sebadoh record? Read on…
Part 1 of this interview ended with Barlow, noting “the power of Dinosaur Jr.,” which takes us right into part 2…
Hans Morgenstern: You guys are getting along good right now, right?
Lou Barlow: I don’t know… whatever. (laughter)
I heard you were “kicked out of the band” when they signed to a major label. Can you explain what happened there?
That’s not why I was kicked out. J was just like, ‘I’m sick of this. I can’t deal with this anymore.’
Just me hating him. Me just making him feel weird (laughs), so he kicked me out of the band, and they put out a single on Sub Pop and they signed to a major label.
You guys got back together in 2005. Did you ever think, 10 years ago, that the original Dinosaur would ever get back together, tour and record new material?
No, but when it happened I thought it was a good time. It made sense to me when it happened, but I certainly didn’t think that … maybe two years before, that I would have been like, ‘No, never!’ But I would go to J’s solo shows, and we did a show together at a benefit, and we sort of reunited our hardcore band for one song at a show, and I thought, maybe J’s kinda open and into things, and he can deal with this.
You even recorded together.
Yeah, we’ve done two records together.
Is a third record coming?
Yep! J, he’s totally on fire. He’s writing new songs.
But you also wrote Dinosaur Jr. songs, right?
Yeah. On the second record, I did two songs on that record. On the reunion records, I did two songs on each record.
But nothing on the first album [Dinosaur]?
He masterminded that record. It was amazing. Amazing songs. Fuckin’ amazing. But he really wanted me to sing. He didn’t really want to sing, so he sort of assigned songs for me. But I wasn’t really at the same spot, songwriting-wise. I was only starting to write songs, but he was amazing when he was 19 years old, freshman in college. He was on fire. He fuckin’ did all these amazing songs and said, ‘sing this,’ and I’m like, OK! (laughs). It was amazing. He was really into it, really inspired.
How has these past few years felt with the old guys in Dino? Is it more comfortable than it was back then?
Oh, yeah, definitely. But it’s the same (laughs). J’s not really into it. He’s not into anything really. He’s not into the way I play, he’s not into my songs, he’s not into Murph playing drums, but he deals with it, you know? (laughs) He’s like, ‘I guess other people like what’s going on here.’ He came to a point in his life where he understood that other people liked things that he didn’t really like, and then he would tolerate the things that other people liked that he didn’t really like (laughs), which is an amazing thing for someone to go like, ‘Hey, wait, I don’t like this but other people do, so I’ll guess I’ll do this because other people like it’ (laughter). He actually did that, which is, for him, an amazing, incredible leap.
How did the restart of Sebadoh come about?
We never really stopped playing, so I think there was a reissue of Bakesale, and Domino Records in England were like, ‘You’ve got to do this. We’ve got to reissue this record, we’ve got to reissue this record. We’ve got to.’ Then, finally, I’m like, OK, let’s do it. Let’s reissue the record. Then Sub Pop in the US wanted the record, but they didn’t want to release it. They wanted to do it digitally, then I had to tell them they had to do it physically. It was horrible, and of course it didn’t sell for them at all, and they lost a ton of money on it again (laughs). It’s kind of sort of tragic. It was awful. It was awful trying to convince Sub Pop to do a record that they would [lose money on]. I was like, come on, do this for me. I know you’re going to do a lot of money on it, so please do it, and they did it and then we toured. But we’ve been touring like every three or four years since we broke up, actually. We never broke up, actually, let’s put it that way. I think the interest in the band has never really been that great, so whatever. We do it when we can do it. Like when our schedules allow.
How would you describe Eric Gaffney’s role in the band? He was your first member of Sebadoh and co-wrote many songs on the first album. He even rejoined in a resurrected Sebadoh that toured in 2007 and 2008. Why is he no longer a member?
He doesn’t really like to play drums at all (laughs), which is really what I like him to do … to be inspired and play drums like he really likes it. We did a reunion tour like a few years ago, and he played drums, but he wouldn’t play the drums, you know? We would try to teach him songs that he didn’t know, and he wouldn’t learn them. It was kinda like being with J and Murph. They’re really just not into learning… They’re not into me. They’re not into my stuff, so it was hard to like really get Eric to play songs that he didn’t actually play, on the original recordings, so it’s very difficult. He wants to be the leader of a band and play guitar, which is awesome, which is great. I’d love to be in a band with Eric Gaffney, but I would need him to give as much effort as I give to him. I need something reciprocal from him, and he’s really not into that.
Is he doing anything right now?
Eric is awesome. He’s a great musician, and he writes really interesting songs, but he’s just not into collaborating, and that’s my thing. With Sebadoh it’s really about collaboration. It’s about people working together, and Eric’s not really into working together. … If I want Eric Gaffney to learn a bunch of Bakesale songs, and he won’t learn them, where am I at? What do we do with that? Like we would literally, on the tours that we did, we would say, ‘Eric, here’s a song,’ and we gave him like a few songs, like ‘Love is Stronger Than the Truth,’ from a record that he didn’t play on. ‘Here’s the song, I would like to play it, and people would like to hear it.’ He fuckin’ wouldn’t learn it (laughs). We’d be halfway through the tour, and he’d still be stumbling through the fuckin’ breaks. What do you do with that? What do you fuckin’ do with that? In the meantime, he’s showing us new songs, and we’re like, ‘Yeah, man, bring it on. Fuck yeah!’ We’re like fuckin’ into anything that he brings, but then you try to bring something that he doesn’t know, and he’s just like, ‘I don’t know…’”
Where does this rock star attitude come from?
I don’t know, man. Everyone I know is a fuckin’ rock star… but not like Jason Loewenstein. Jason Loewenstein’s fuckin’ awesome. He’s into it. He does his best. The other people that I know like J and Eric and Murph, like those guys are like, ‘Hey, I’m not into this, so I’m not doin’ it.’ (laughs).
It’s going to be fun socializing with them on the cruise ship.
No, no, no. They’re awesome. They’re awesome people. I’m just sayin’ on a creative level … In my opinion, if you’re a musician, you fuckin’ play music, and if someone says you play a song, you fuckin’ learn the song, and you play it. No matter what your opinion was. If someone shows you a song, and you say, ‘I don’t think that song is very good,’ you don’t say that (laughs). You play it. You take it as a challenge. You say, OK, I’m going to try to add to this song in a way that might make it better or more interesting for myself. You don’t shut down and not give to it. You take it as a challenge. If you were given something that you don’t respond to, that’s a challenge to make it interesting for yourself. Not to make the fuckin’ person that handed a piece of your soul to you… every song that someone hands to you is a piece of their soul, and you make the fuckin’ best of that. You’re making a huge risk by handing something creative to someone else. If you were a friend, and also if you were a fuckin’ good person, you say, ‘OK, thank you, I will do my best.’ You don’t just say (in dumb voice): ‘I don’t know man, I’m not feeling it.’
Are you thinking about Eric when you are saying all this?
I’m thinking about J, I’m thinking about Eric… uhhhh (he sighs) it drives me fuckin’ nuts about some people.
What happened recently that has caused this to bubble up?
No, whatever, it’s happened my whole experience. Every record that I’ve ever made, except when I worked with Jason Loewenstein. He’s fuckin’ awesome. Jason Loewenstein, Bob [D'Amico], [Imaad] Wasif, the people that I worked with in the Folk Implosion, great. Although that’s different. Eric Gaffney, J Mascis, Murph, those, those guys are (dumb voice) ‘I don’t know man.’ (laughs) You’re, really? Really? (Cracks up).
It sounds like it’s going to be a long tour…
No, no, dude. It’s all good (laughs). I’m just explaining to you. This doesn’t bum me out to the point that I’m not going to do what I do. I’ve just discovered with musicians that I’ve worked with, you’ve got the guys that synch, you’ve got the guys that go, ‘I don’t know, man. I don’t like this. I don’t feel like playin’ it’ or you’ve got the guys that go, ‘Hey, I don’t like this. I don’t care. I’m going to fuckin’ play it coz I’m a fuckin’ musician’ (laughs). ‘I’m going to focus and do it, and I’m going to do my best, and if I don’t like it, I’m going to try to do something that I do like on it.’ There’s collaborators and there’s fuckin’ people that are not collaborators, and I’ve dealt with both and I deal with both, and I will continue to deal with both (laughs).
In the Freed Man [Sebadoh's debut album, when Sebadoh was just Barlow and Gaffney], you can tell there is a clash going on there.
Yeah, cause he played his own songs, and I was trying to involve him. I desperately wanted to be in a band with him, and I was just trying to involve him in the process and think, naively, that I would gain his trust (laughs). I was trying to gain his trust basically. Just looking back at it, it was amazing I just spent so much time trying to gain his trust … and then make him a collaborator. But I think when people are not collaborators, they’re not collaborators, unfortunately. You can’t make someone collaborate (laughs). As he collaborated with me, I thought that then I could collaborate with him, and that’s not really the case. That’s a big lesson that I learned.
I then ask Barlow whether this conversation is going on too long for him since I only requested 15 minutes. Then, he reveals, indeed he can cope fine with artistic differences while continuing to work with Dinosaur Jr. A member of Dinosaur was at his home all along during the interview, watching the two children Barlow has with his longtime wife. “Murph, the drummer of Dinosaur Jr., is watching our kids right now,” Barlow says. “He’s awesome.”
Sebadoh performs in Miami on Wednesday, Jan. 18, with Jacuzzi Boys and Plains supporting. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance, on sale here, or $20 at the door. All ages are welcome. After a long weekend at sea on the Weezer Cruise (Edit: You can now read a 4-part recap of the event here), Lou Barlow returns to the same venue as bassist with Dinosaur Jr. Yuck will support at that show, also all ages, on Monday, Jan. 23. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $26 in advance, on sale here, or $30 at the door.
Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow talks beginning with ‘Weed Forestin’ (soon to be reissued on LP): an Indie Ethos Exclusive (Part 1 of 2)
January 16, 2012
Ahead of his many appearances as part of Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh and as a solo artist on the Carnival Cruise ship Destiny during the Weezer Cruise singer/guitarist Lou Barlow spoke about the misnomer “prince of lo-fi,” the up-coming vinyl reissue of Weed Forestin and Sebadoh’s debut Miami show ahead of the cruise. He spoke with me from his Los Angeles home, a few days before a tour with Dinosaur Jr., in early December. I was expecting to have just about 15 minutes. We ended up speaking for nearly an hour and covering many more subjects. Barlow even offered some candid insight into the dynamics between he and his longtime bandmates in Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr. (wait for part 2 of this interview).
Founded by Barlow in the late eighties, Sebadoh has long existed in the shadows of many more popular acts of the nineties alternative rock scene. Their height of exposure came while on the Seattle-based label Sub Pop, probably the most famous independent label during the rise of the so-called grunge rock scene. The band signed a deal with the label in the early nineties, just as the label’s most famous product, Nirvana, had flown the coop to ride high on MTV buzz while crossing over to a major label, DGC, an off-shoot of Geffen Records, distributed by Warner Bros. Meanwhile, Barlow’s former band, Dinosaur Jr., also enjoyed MTV popularity in support of albums on the major label Reprise, also distributed by Warner Bros.
Sebadoh carried on as a curious but well-respected band fronted by the man cast out as bassist and sometime singer of Dinosaur Jr. just before Dino signed its major label deal. Sebadoh’s “size” fit Barlow just fine, as he prefers the inherent low profile approach of an indie label. He even enjoys being his own roadie and piling into the van with just his two other bandmates, currently longtime bassist Jason Loewenstein and new drummer Bob D’Amico (who are both also key to The Fiery Furnaces). Still, Sebadoh were no less influential or important to revitalizing rock. Even before Sebadoh signed to Sub Pop, and only had its second album out on the even smaller Homestead Records, Superchunk took three songs from Sebadoh’s all Barlow-composed collection of home-recordings, Weed Forestin, to fill the majority of an EP called “the Freed Seed” in 1991. Weed Forestin had only arrived on the scene a year earlier, but there it was, celebrated by another band that was also important to the indie rock scene of the early nineties (Superchunk’s frontman, Mac McCaughan, still owns and operates Merge Records, which most famously became the first indie label to earn the Album of the Year Grammy in 2010 with Arcade Fire’s the Suburbs).
The humble start of Sebadoh was just an alternative venue for Barlow to give life to his songs, which were often rejected by Dinosaur Jr.’s frontman J Mascis. He recorded them at home on a 4-track cassette recorder with Eric Gaffney providing percussion. Homestead Records would compile the works, first released as cassettes, on a 1990 CD entitled the Freed Weed. The first 23 tracks on the 40-track disc, covers Weed Forestin and the last 17 tracks are the Freed Man, Sebadoh’s first official album, which saw commercial release in 1989. According to the Freed Weed‘s credits, the songs were recorded in 1986-88. Sometime this year, Barlow says he promises to officially reissue Weed Forestin on vinyl. In recent years, earlier Sebadoh reissues have been released by Sub Pop Records in the US and Domino Records in the UK, but Barlow says he plans to release Weed Forestin as a very limited run on vinyl, independently. “Five hundred,” he says with a laugh. “Get ‘em while they’re hot.”
OK, so there is a hint of sarcasm to that last statement, but I offer my surprise at such a low pressing. “That’s all we need,” Barlow insists. “No more than 500 people want that record.” During our conversation, Barlow notices how serious I am about this album, and he tells me he cannot believe I am as interested as I say I am in this record, an obscure introduction to Sebadoh if there ever was one.
We argue back and forth a bit. I plead my honest curiosity, sharing a story of how a dear friend of mine from my early college years, who happened to have abused enough LSD to turn schizophrenic, turned me on to the album. “The first generation of the people that really found it and felt that it was speaking to them, those people are real sensitive people,” Barlow says. “They really found something. It was not just, ‘Hey, man, this sounds pretty good, you should check this out.’ It was more like, ‘No!’” he says with a laugh and continues in a raspy voice, ‘This is amazing. You should hear it.’”
There is a purity to Weed Forestin, as it presents Sebadoh at its most raw and intimate. It is also on of the more obscure and probably most rough-around-the edges Sebadoh record in the band’s catalog. It can even be seen as a genuine goof with heartfelt intention, filled with experimental tangents and sincere, soul-stirring songwriting.
The subtleties that many take for granted are testament to the album’s character. The album opens with what sounds like a split second of orchestra, then four notes of a swinging guitar line with a muffled, tapped beat before the song “Temporary Dream” begins. Made up of some meandering whistling and a steady snare beat, where Barlow sings varied versions of “On my way to temporary dream,” before voices start screaming “Dreams! Dreams! Dreams!” the song picks up, stumbles and stops. It’s a defiant statement against whatever may have existed on the tape first and hinted by the album’s blink-and-you-might-miss-it opening. The track provides the perfect set-up for the album, with a beginning that alludes to the patch-work quality of leftover music recorded over on tape. The past and the present are experienced as one.
“New Worship,” a true, guitar-oriented song, follows with a distinct, seesaw rhythm. Barlow sings in his typically earnest, hushed voice, as the song drives on. After he sings “All my friends are killing me,” a higher-pitched, almost gnome-like voice repeats the statement, adding, “They think I’m a genius,” before dissolving into a whir of reverb. The song picks up the driving beat, and the melody comes to life with exuberant strums before grinding to a halt. No song on the album lasts longer than three and a half minutes and most are just under two minutes. They may be sketches but breath with amazing life, pulling back the curtain of the catchy, dynamic, punchy music of later-era Sebadoh.
With “Subtle Holy Gift” the distortion around the music makes the song sound like it’s coming from the inside of a big, old, wooden boat, drifting on a still ocean. Barlow offers two tracks of vocals, one in his regular tone, the other a falsetto, that harmonize with every other line, until the chorus, when they overlap. The sound is so distorted, the guitar strings sound as though they are being scratched instead of strummed.
“Whitey Peach” opens with nothing but tape hiss, Barlow states “5:20″ (it’s a subtle enigma that probably means nothing, but an enigma nonetheless) and then some disjointed guitar playing begins, sounding as if recorded from a distance, and once it catches a groove, the first word from the softly sung “Hey, girl, do you see the thing I see?” is also used as an accompaniment by a second vocal track, just a whiny, soft quavering “heeeeeey,” which reappears with each line, as the song rambles along like something from a hundred years ago. It’s not because the music’s style sounds dated, but the tape these songs were recorded on sounds like it is on the verge of disintegrating, and these are the voices of ghosts. The acoustic guitar rumbles and reverbs but also glistens and chimes. A variety of taps and beats appear here and there to spice things up.
Most songs on Weed Forestin are sung hushedly, as if not to disturb anyone outside of the bedroom. The songs have a vibrant, varied quality, defined by the earnestness of youth (Barlow says he recorded the tracks between the ages of 19 and 21). It’s a contrast to Sebadoh’s later studio-work, which garnered more notoriety on the college music radio charts and from other musicians, at least. With proper studio equipment and regular members who contributed to the songwriting, Sebadoh became a more polished, though still grungy project, which even took rare but notable hard, abrasive turns into screaming hardcore, a genre that defined the punk sound that first brought Barlow and Mascis together in high school. Their group with two other band mates and Mascis on drums, Deep Wound, only recorded a self-titled EP on an indie label. Then there was Folk Implosion, which gave Barlow his biggest hit, “Natural One,” released on the Kids soundtrack, peaking at 29 on the Billboard singles chart in 1995, higher than anything Sebadoh ever released. Here’s the video for that as a refresher:
But before Folk Implosion went on to release four albums and Sebadoh broke out on its own, there were the homemade recordings later released as Weed Forestin, and that is what I am most curious about (no better time for that seeing as the vinyl reissue is on its way this year). When I first met Barlow, back in 1997, in North Miami Beach, during an in-store at the long gone Blue Note Records, I expressed my deep affection for the Freed Weed. As he signed the CD booklet for that, he suggested I go check out Smog. When I remind him of that meeting, he laughs. “See, look at me, selfless, even back then: ‘You like the lo-fi? Go get a Smog record.’”
On with the Q&A…
Hans Morgenstern: You remember that in-store at the record shop Blue Note?
Lou Barlow: That was amazing. That was a really cool record store.
Otherwise, you’ve never, ever toured down to Miami.
Not really, no. I did that one show at the record store and that’s it … It’s so weird. Miami is this weirdly ignored place. It’s like Miami and Montana, it’s like the two places that nobody plays, although I don’t really understand why. I don’t get it. Miami I think is just like a whole other culture unto itself. There’s something about it that is so unique. It’s almost like touring South America or Mexico or something … I’m excited to be back there actually.
No challenges really. The problem with it was that when it was mastered originally they put way more hiss on it than was on the original recordings. I think people really like the hiss. They will probably really hate the reissue because the reissue actually sounds like what I recorded, so people won’t like it at all, which is sad, and that’s why we probably won’t even sell 500. We will only sell like 250 or 300 coz people won’t like it (laughs). I’m kidding. I’m sorry.
You’re right, though. It’s true that the hiss is a very important part of it.
The hiss is a big part of it, but a lot of the hiss was really added by other people and not me.
So when you first heard it, you were like, ‘What the hell? Did it really sound this crappy?”
Yeah, but I couldn’t do anything about it.
But now, you’re fixing that. You’re doing what George Lucas did with Star Wars.
No! No, absolutely not. He ruined it. He went back and changed things. No, I’m not changing anything. I’m just taking the original recordings, and I took them to an amazing mastering studio, and we just made them sound like they sounded. We don’t change anything. It was presenting what I listened to and what I know as Weed Forestin, what I know the songs to sound like.
What did you record it on?
A Fostex 4-track.
What is that orchestral sample that keeps appearing throughout the album?
I don’t know. I listened to the radio a lot, and I still do. One day I was listening to a classical radio show, and I just hit record and play… and I hit stop. I had no idea what it was, and it was so beautiful, and I took that little piece and I just went crazy with it. It’s possibly from something well-known.
It sounds like Wagner.
Really? (laughs) If it’s Wagner that will be really heavy … I don’t know if I could deal with that … Someone knows, but the people that listen to my music don’t know. Only people that really like real music know (laughs).
As I researched what you’ve been up to lately, I noticed you being called the unofficial prince of lo-fi music, but it wasn’t like you set out to create a new genre with your music.
I didn’t create anything, no. There was already lo-fi before me (laughs).
It’s not bitter … It’s very wary, cautious… um, maybe bitter. It’s a little bitter, but I’ve heard much more bitter in my life by other bands that people don’t call bitter. I don’t know. I mean, that’s fair, I guess, yes.
But there’s also some wisdom.
I was trying to talk myself through my life. I was trying to understand what I was experiencing, but I don’t think … but, there’s some bitterness.
But then there is some hopefulness, like “I Believe in Fate.”
Yeah, well, there you go. “Anyone can be your brand new love” (a lyric from another Weed Forestin song, “Brand New Love”).
But in “I Believe in Fate,” you sing, “Some girl I don’t know is waiting to marry me.” Now you’re a married man. How long have you been married?
26 years or something (he laughs).
Are you kidding?
We’ve been married since… ’95? We were married since the day we met. I met her because of the music. When I wrote out the original lyric sheet, I wrote out, ‘A personal plea to a special someone.’ I was writing those songs for a girl I didn’t know. Someone that would hear that and understand me and that would want to be with me. It was for a girl (he laughs). On one side there was these love songs and on the other side it was meant to be what I was thinking about philosophically and what I was struggling with on a sort of spiritual level. Originally, on the record or the cassette, one side was the relationship songs, the songs about love, and the other side was meant to be the philosophical side where I was struggling with philosophical issues and almost, like, political issues, struggling with the power of charisma. How you get one asshole male with an incredible amount of charisma who changes the world, who can change the way people think, who can sway people. I was just very torn between these things.
So your wife is one of the original Weed Forestin fans?
The thing is, on the Dinosaur Jr. record You’re Living All Over Me, the song I put on there, “Poledo,” in that sort of noise collage, that song was the genesis, and Weed Forestin was the outgrowth of that. “Poledo,” that was the beginning of it and then, when I elaborated on it, that was Weed Forestin.
Are you playing some of these songs on the cruise?
I could do it…
Oh, come on.
Yeah, fuck, why not. I’ll bring my ukulele (laughs). Absolutely.
No better place for a uke than a cruise ship.
There you go. Perfect (laughs).
How does it feel to be part of the entertainment on a Carnival cruise ship?
It’s fucking awesome.
How did you wind up booked on a cruise?
Rivers Cuomo [Weezer's frontman] really liked Sebadoh. He really liked the Bakesale record, and I met him a few times, and we hung out a little bit. We’re kind of from the same area of the country. He’s from the middle part of Connecticut. We’re from southern-western Massachusetts. Sebadoh got asked to do it pretty early on, and then Dinosaur was asked to do it. With Sebadoh, we were like, yeah, we’ll do it, and Dinosaur weren’t getting enough money, so Dinosaur asked for more money, and then J didn’t really want to do it. I think J is getting paid for his solo shows as well. I’m playing solo shows for nothing (laughter). It’s just amazing, man, the power of Dinosaur Jr.
Up-date: you can stream the entirety of the brilliant Weed Forestin album, now credited to “Sentridoh,” by visiting Sentridoh’s Bandcamp by clicking through the image of the new album’s cover art here:
* * *
Part 2 of this interview is available here:
Barlow shares much about working with Mascis in Dinosaur Jr. and Gaffney in Sebadoh, as well as the perils of reissuing vinyl.
Sebadoh performs in Miami on Wednesday, Jan. 18, with Jacuzzi Boys and Plains supporting. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance, on sale here, or $20 at the door. All ages are welcome. After a long weekend at sea on the Weezer Cruise (Edit: You can now read a 4-part recap of the event here), Lou Barlow returns to the same venue as bassist with Dinosaur Jr. Yuck will support at that show, also all ages, on Monday, Jan. 23. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $26 in advance, on sale here, or $30 at the door.
The other day, I got not one but two invitations from Grand Central on Facebook to more imported alternative rock acts visiting South Florida during the month of September. I have already detailed five noteworthy shows I hope to attend during the month. Now here come two more, both thanks to Grand Central. And both perfectly paired, as one is a group of New Wave pioneers and the other is a revivalist of the New Wave sound. The UK’s Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and Australia’s Cut/Copy will travel across the world for their respective US tours during the month of September, and both tours include stops in Miami (click on the respective artists’ names to see other dates on their tours).
Once again, it seems luck allows for no overlaps in the shows noted in my earlier posts regarding September live shows in South Florida (Manu Chao to make Miami debut in Sept.; September offering some good concerts in SoFla). OMD’s show is the earlier of the two shows, happening Friday, Sept. 16, at 8 p.m. It marks the start of the band’s US tour featuring original members that at least date back to 1986′s The Pacific Age (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the vinyl on Amazon.com), including founding members Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys. It’s classic British new wave, and I was first turned on to the band through a video clip on one of the great documents of the early eighties music scene, as a kid thanks to the movie Urgh! A music War (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the DVD on Amazon.com). I remember repeatedly renting out that VHS from a local video shop to experience over and over again. One of the highlights on that compilation video of live performances was OMD’s energetic interpretation of their hit single “Enola Gay”:
Hopefully they can give up some more of that energy on Friday night. They will be joined by Aussie recording artist Washington (very poppy).
Next comes Cut/Copy, whose date in Miami falls in the middle of the band’s US tour, again on a Friday night: this time Sept. 30. The show starts at 10 p.m. and bounds to be a long night, with two notable acts touring along with Cut/Copy: Washed Out recently signed with Sub Pop Records. Those who have seen “Portlandia” on IFC, may recognize this song. Meanwhile, Midnight Magic, a very disco-retro sort of band, should warm-up the stage nicely.
I know I slagged off Cut/Copy’s latest album for being way too derivative of the worst of eighties pop, from the musical clichés to the vintage instruments. I stand by the review. However, I am still a fan of their first album, Bright Like Neon Love (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the album on Amazon.com), which had Cut/Copy bursting on the scene with a dramatic sound that celebrated electro dance music while throwing interesting curve balls of psychedelia. Here’s “Going Nowhere” from that album, live…
I think, with a little less than two months to go for the string of dates I already have tickets for, this beats the amount of shows I saw last October. I plan to start preparing posts ahead of time for live reviews, pictures and videos, this time (Who knows what could happen?). If possible, maybe some artist profiles will come out of it.
If September is not enough, just as I was preparing this post, Grand Central sent another invite to an indie rock show of interest: Ladytron. Scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 15, at 9 p.m., that concert comes soon after the release of the band’s new full-length Gravity the Seducer (Support the Independent Ethos, pre-order the vinyl on Amazon.com). The band has posted three full tracks from the album on Soundcloud. You can stream them all for free here:
Tickets to all shows are available from Grand Central’s website.
April 28, 2011
The members of Fleet Foxes have been away from the recording studio a long time since the recording of their breakout self-titled full-length in 2008. Their follow-up, Helplessness Blues (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the vinyl on Amazon.com), reveals the Seattle-based folk rockers have grown up a bit since then. Most distinctly amiss from the new album is the lack of hooks that made a lot of their lush, dreamy debut such a darling in the indie rock world. However, in place of hooks, the band have conjured a work of immersive music that rewards patient attention.
With Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes shows more concern with evoking atmosphere than pulling together catchy songs. The music more than ever buoys the words of singer and songwriter Robin Pecknold, making his lyrics stand out more than on any previous album, which also includes the band’s debut mini-album Sun Giant (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the CD on Amazon.com). The first three songs alone on Helplessness Blues open with solitary acoustic guitar lines. While the guitars on most songs sound as crystalline as on any other Fleet Foxes album, the opener seems to come out of some dark, cavernous chamber, echoing, as the guitar rambles along like some babbling brook. Then Pecknold sings the album’s opening lines: “So now I am older/than my mother and father/when they had their daughter/Now what does that say about me?” Throughout the album, Pecknold’s words seem obsessed with mortality and a search for place and purpose in the fleeting moment that is human existence. Helplessness Blues could almost be the soundtrack to Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the book on Amazon.com).
“Lorelai” opens with Pecknold singing, “So, guess I got old/I was like trash on the sidewalk.” But lest one think this might herald a darker turn from previous albums, Pecknold also offers contrasting images of joie de vivre and enlightenment. On the title track there are experiences of finding passion in something as quaint as maintaining an orchard in contrast to the disillusionment of the predestined purpose of a person’s role in society.
Highlighting the lyrics further is the band’s more evolved use of vocal harmonies, more than ever recalling the Beach Boys. If it wants to, Fleet Foxes could make songs with only vocals. Pecknold’s voice alone is like a wind swirling up to heaven, then behind are these cooing layers of breathy vocals humming along. “The Plains / Bitter Dancer” opens with the gradual crescendo of vocals piling up on each other with various “oos” and “ahhs” at various lengths and tones, sounding like a Philip Glass organ piece.
Underneath the lyrics and voices is a new, more adventurous musical styling for Fleet Foxes focused on mood. On the title track, the shift in tone of the lyrics accompanies an extreme turn in the music. As Pecknold sings lines like “I’d rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me,” acoustic guitars drive the song along on ringing riffs like some troubadour folky piece by Bob Dylan. But then, halfway through, the song breaks out to another dimension with booming percussion and tremolo electric guitars, recalling the brighter side of Red House Painters.
Atmospherics in music does not come from hooks but from things like sound quality, subtle things like noise. A perfect example would be the abstract ending of “The Shrine / An Argument,” featuring the reedy freak-out of a bass clarinet and the warped plucking of strings. It offers a distinct contrast to the quiet babbling of the acoustic guitar that appears on many tracks of Helplessness Blues. On “The Shrine / An Argument” Pecknold even sings in a raspy howl contrasted with his more familiar ethereal exhalations, which is actually juxtaposed from one line to the next in the line “Sunlight over me/No matter what I do! Apples in the summer all gold and sweet…” The song then shifts to a chugging melody where even the guitar sounds percussive. With another sudden shift to the dreamy world of acoustic guitar plucking, something indecipherable hums in the background before the song swells to the aforementioned cacophony of clarinet and strings.
“The Shrine / An Argument” is practically a progressive rock moment unheard of in the Fleet Foxes canon until now. To top it off, this is not the only song that features extreme shifts in tone. The title track also features such a moment. Then, in the grander experience of listening to the album all the way through, the band explores a range of ideas that add to the dynamics of the work as a whole, almost like the prog rock of the late sixties/early seventies. There are not only surprising tonal twists within the songs but throughout the album. There is an acoustic instrumental at the center of the album called “the Cascades” that could have felt right at home on an album like Genesis’ Selling England By the Pound or King Crimson’s Islands. The quiet “Blue Spotted Tail” features a tremolo guitar line and Pecknold’s voice without any of the usual backing harmonies featured on the other tracks. The album then continues to the near bombastic finale of “Grown Ocean,” which sounds like Sigur Ros crossed with Yes.
This album is a challenging listen and may not win over the same kind of fans the first album gained for the band, and it probably will not reach the same kind notoriety in this age of immediacy and trashy delights. But it will reward those listeners who like to invest attention when listening to music. Indeed, Helplessness Blues is by no means background music. One should be prepared to have a seat, stare out the window, gaze upon nature, and follow Fleet Foxes on an elegant journey into music. Helplessness Blues offers a delightful and majestic aural experience for those ready to invest their attention to subtle yet rewarding songcraft.
One final note: Fleet Foxes released a video of “Grown Ocean” featuring home movies of the band as it recorded the album. Seeing the presence of a reel-to-reel machine among the images, gives hope for an analog source for this material, so hearing it on vinyl seems more appropriate than the mp3 version Sub Pop Records shared with me ahead of the album’s release (I have been listening to it off and on for the past two weeks before passing this judgment, and the more familiar I become with it, the more moving it gets). I leave you with the aforementioned music video:
If you want to hear the entire album now, NPR was granted the privilege of streaming the whole thing as one track, a week before the album’s official release, May 3 (Stream Helplessness Blues).