Fleet Foxes dump hooks, go for atmosphere on new album

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).

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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