Thursday, January 8, 2015

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues (2011)

Best Song: Helplessness Blues

It's become something of a cliché. A band or musician releases a critically acclaimed album, and they suddenly decide that this must mean they are Important Artists With Something To Say (TM) (IAWSTS for short). Sometimes these important things are personal in nature, sometimes political or societal. Sometimes this doesn't affect the material at all, but more often it either leads to bloated pretension and underwritten songs, or, if you're lucky, if they handle this urge well, they'll get some extra inspiration and make some of the best work of their careers. Fortunately for us, Robin Pecknold managed to hit the latter.

And it is Robin Pecknold – in the Sun Giant review, I said it might not be entirely fair to say that Robin Pecknold is the whole band, but at the time of Helplessness Blues, it definitely is. The band is more or less dissolved – many people who were in Fleet Foxes contributed to this album, but nobody seems to be credited as an actual band member, simply as glorified session musicians for Robin Pecknold's artistic vision.

Whereas in the past, Fleet Foxes mostly adhered to folk mannerisms without much that hit on your emotional centers, Helplessness Blues is a very personal album for Robin Pecknold. Instead of idolizing Fairport Convention, Robin Pecknold turns to more intimate groups like Simon & Garfunkel and ups the Beach Boys pop influence and vocal harmonies a bit. The result is an album that is honestly right up there with the best of its influences, and for being such a personal album, it never comes across as overbearing, obnoxious, or self pitying. The lyrics are mostly great, which is good because Robin Pecknold's vocals are pushed way up front. The extra inspiration he's obviously feeling gives the album a strong emotional component without sacrificing any of the strong melodicity or genial sound of the previous efforts, giving Fleet Foxes the missing component that pushes them from “very good” to “great.”

The opening lines of “Montezuma,” sung over a couple of heavily reverbed, but lovely acoustic guitar lines, immediately make the purpose of Helplessness Blues clear - “So now I am older/Than my mother and father/When they had their daughter/Now what does that say about me?” The rest of the tune is a classic in its own right, but don't think the album is all sparse acoustic introspection. No, Robin Pecknold is too smart for that – the following “Bedouin Dresses” with its attractive fiddle line and the bouncy groove of “Battery Kinzie” show that he's not letting the arrangements fall by the wayside at all.

“Sim Sala Bim” has a great vocal melody, and an even better instrumental coda. “The Plains/Bitter Dancer” is 2 minutes of gorgeous Beach Boys style vocal harmonies, followed by a tense harpsichord driven tune with some very pretty flute here and there. “The Cascades” is actually a surprisingly good instrumental that perfectly paints the image of its title. The mandolin driven ballad “Lorelei” is somewhat of a rewrite of “4th Time Around” by Bob Dylan (which was already a take off on “Norwegian Wood” by The Beatles), but Robin Pecknold adds his own unique brand to it, and the “I was old news to you then” refrain can be a real tearjerker.

“Someone You'd Admire” is just Robin Pecknold and his guitar, but it's very effective and moving, as is the closing “Grown Ocean.” The only songs which aren't quite up to snuff are the just kinda decent “Blue Spotted Tail” and the “Argument” part of “The Shrine/An Argument.” The first 5 minutes or so of the song are great, actually, and very haunting, but the dissonant sax jumble which makes up the “Argument” portion just doesn't do it for me. I know what it's supposed to symbolize, I'm not an idiot, but with all of the sheer beauty on Helplessness Blues, the dissonance just sort of comes out of nowhere and really doesn't belong on the album.

And that brings us to the big classic, the title track. I said in my Sun Giant review that “Mykonos” might be Fleet Foxes' best song, but man, it's a tight race between that one and “Helplessness Blues,” and on second thought, I think this one wins out. This is the only track in the Fleet Foxes' canon which can almost be called a protest song, and while that might sound like a negative thing, the lyrics are excellent, as Robin Pecknold combines the social, the personal, the anthemic, and the humble in a way that is normally reserved for Bob Dylan. It starts off quietly before exploding into an energetic strumfest, and the vocal melody is just the right mix of questioning and desperate, and catchy as hell. Then, a few minutes in, the song slows down and makes the most beautiful transition I've heard yet from Fleet Foxes, to the hymn-like “If I had an orchard” section, with the most gorgeous vocal harmonies I think I've heard this side of The Beach Boys. It's an absolutely heartbreaking composition, somehow both uplifting and saddening almost in a Soft Bulletin way, and if you're unmoved by it, I find it hard to believe that you have a soul.

Helplessness Blues is the culmination of Fleet Foxes' career, and it seems like Robin Pecknold might realize it too, since he has ceased musical activities since then, returning to college. He poured his heart and soul, and much of his time and effort, into this album, losing his girlfriend and many of his friends in the process – his girlfriend actually came back to him after she heard the album, realizing to what fantastic ends his efforts had been used. While it's true that doesn't necessarily mean a good album would be created (see Bon Iver), with a man as talented as Robin Pecknold, all of the effort and love he poured into Helplessness Blues are very evident and push it into the realm of greatness, solidifying him as one of the most incredible songwriters of the past 10 years.

There's a small bit of filler, and different tiers of greatness on the album – if everything had the same level of inspiration as the title track, this would get a 15 easily – and the album does have a very atmospheric and samey quality that can cause some ending fatigue. Still, these are just reasons I'm not giving it the highest score, and I actually waver on a 13 or a 14 here. Ultimately, I'll settle on a very strong 13, only missing it due to a small bit of monotony and the fact that I really don't enjoy “An Argument.” This is a modern classic, one that takes some time to grow and appreciate, but ends up being a beautiful and emotional masterpiece. If you found the debut and the EP a little cold and detached, look here for the antidote.

Rating: 13/15

Monday, January 5, 2015

Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes (2008)

Best Song: Ragged Wood

Lineup Change:

Robin Pecknold – Lead Vocals, Guitar, Songwriting
Skyler Skjelset – Lead Guitar
Casey Wescott – Piano, Keyboards, Vocals
Craig Curran – Bass, Vocals
Nicholas Peterson – Drums, Vocals


Fleet Foxes' self-titled debut made them the indie heroes of the moment, the next Big New Thing in 2008, along with Vampire Weekend, and this was completely deserved. If you've heard Sun Giant, you more or less know what to expect here – folk-rock and pop in the style of Fairport Convention or Lindisfarne or whoever, but with more emphasis on melody and vocal harmonies. The arrangements are more intricate, I suppose, but overall this is just an extension of what you've already heard on Sun Giant.

“Sun It Rises” really lives up to its title, with its grand organ sound, epic guitar lines, and gradual buildup to a folk-rock harmony-drenched explosion that really sounds like the breaking of dawn. “Ragged Wood” is another great example of the more detailed arrangements, as it has three distinct sections, moving from a jaunty folk jig, to a harmony drenched midsection, and then the great “Tell me anything you want/Any old lie you choose” and electric guitar lines closing it off. All three segments of the song are among the best ideas on the album, and they all interact well with each other.

“Your Protector” and “He Doesn't Know Why” are more great, epic folk tunes, filled with fantastic harmonies and lovely melodies. The latter even has a short piano tune that caps it off, and while it doesn't belong at all, it's positively gorgeous and I couldn't imagine the song without it. Sometimes they'll latch onto something more repetitive and mantra-like, and while “Quiet Houses” doesn't do much for me, as it's a little bit too repetitious, the single “White Winter Hymnal” is a fun little round that I enjoy greatly.

Occasionally, they'll try their hand at something a little more intimate, little more than Robin Pecknold and his guitar. “Oliver James” is kind of underwhelming as a closer, though it's still fine enough, like “English Son” off Sun Giant, but “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” proves that he can do this kind of thing and come out with a winner. The only tracks which really let the album down at all are “Meadowlarks” and “Heard Them Stirring”, which bookmark “Your Protector.” “Meadowlarks” is another song that's mostly just Robin Pecknold and his guitar, and it seems a little underwritten. It passes through one ear and out the other. “Heard Them Stirring” is a pleasant enough instrumental and all, but instrumentals really aren't this band's strong suit.

Fleet Foxes' debut is a very fine album that's unfortunately received some backlash in response to all the hype. I've seen a lot of criticism along the lines of “Yeah, the sound is nice and genial and all, but there's no meat to it. It's all style and no substance.” I really only hear this on “Heard Them Stirring”, “Meadowlarks,” and “Quiet Houses,” which are very pretty but don't stick much to your ribs. The rest, though, is filled with lots of great melodic and arrangement ideas, beautiful vocal harmonies, and just all around solid songwriting. If that's not meat, I don't know what is.

It's not the greatest album on earth or anything. It might not even be the best album of 2008, though I'm having trouble naming a better one – maybe Third by Portishead – but I'm just really not into this whole “Other people overrated this album, therefore I should dismiss it entirely” mentality that so many people seem to have. Overall, a very solid entry into the annals of modern folk and indie music, and while it may not deserve all of the accolades it's been given, it definitely deserves most of them.

Rating: 12/15