#4 – Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes

Label:  Sub Pop

Released:  2-May-2011

Artist’s Website:  www.fleetfoxes.com

Seattle indie folksters return to the studio with new sounds and renewed confidence.

Fleet Foxes burst onto the music scene in 2008 with an EP that perked up the ears of indie music aficionados (Sun Giant) and a full-length self-titled album that opened many doors for the band.  The glorious ensemble sound of Fleet Foxes is decidedly contrary to most of modern rock music.  The band pinches elements of harmony from the Beach Boys, folky rhythms from Simon & Garfunkel, and baroque song structure from the Zombies, but infuse them with a modern pop sensibility like Band of Horses or their Sub Pop label-mates The Shins.  It sounds at once both familiar and completely unique.

This year saw the release of the long-awaited follow-up record, and Helplessness Blues was certainly worth the wait.  If the previous releases tended to be sun-kissed and bright, then the new record prefers to play in the skewed golden hues of sunrise and sunset.  Fleet Foxes have also returned with a few new instruments to play and new ideas to try.

“Montezuma” sets the new tone early, by looking wistfully to the past while also musing about the concerns of today and tomorrow.  On the lead-off track, and throughout the record, it’s Robin Pecknold’s lead vocal line that primarily carries the melody while the band harmonizes in the background.  This frees up space for other instruments to contribute to the melody.  “Bedouin Dress” and “Sim Sala Bim” introduce new influences to Fleet Foxes’ verdant British wellspring, the former with a North African melody line and the latter with a slow-building acoustic guitar raga.

The band really lets rip with the title track, channeling the best of Paul Simon’s 1960s work into a lament by someone who’s old enough to be self-aware but young enough to not understand his place in the world at large.  It’s a jaw-dropping example of a band that has unlocked the power of the recording studio, and should prove to be a crowd-pleaser for years to come.

Perhaps the bravest song on the record is “The Shrine / An Argument”.  Epic in scope and confident in delivery, the song flows through at least four distinct movements – the first is reflective, the second is defiant, the third is a distended sort of melancholy, and the closing section is a disturbed and twisted skronk that sounds not unlike Radiohead’s soundtrack for a balloon animal convention.  It’s very weird, and who knows how it will be arranged for live concerts, but it’s certainly a brilliant step out from anything the band has released to date.

Over the course of two full-length albums and an EP, Fleet Foxes have managed to carve out a niche for themselves while kick-starting a folk renaissance in indie rock circles.  Helplessness Blues is the sort of instant classic that one imagines will still be enjoyed ten or twenty years from now by music fans, very likely on vinyl while seated next to a glowing fireplace.



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