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Friday, April 29, 2011

Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues (Release Date: 5-3-2011)

        In all seriousness, I fully expect a massive overhaul of radio music in the next several years. With internet buzz yielding so many musical treasures, I can't help but think it's only going to become harder to keep good music down, and even more difficult to prop bad music up. Perhaps you think I'm being optimistic, and maybe I am, but consider just how different the broadcasted tunes of the 90's were from present day. They started with hard-hitting, grungy rock, and ended with uninspired, derivative snoozers. When the power-chorders started to lose their luster, the MCs took over, and still sit atop the throne today. But as long as every-other song is an auto-tune-stuffed mess, I can't help but think their number might be coming up soon, especially with indie-music's ever-increasing popularity. Last year, Vampire Weekend and Arcade Fire each saw their albums reach number one on the Billboard charts, their fantastic discs realizing the promise of the three albums that the two bands had previously released without quite as much spotlight on them (two for AF, one for VW). This year will see a few bands in similar situations, starting this Tuesday with Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues, the follow-up to their now canonical debut, Fleet Foxes, and first bid for real, lasting stardom.

        Despite their seemingly information-age free love of yesteryear imagery and pastural allusions, the band is not the least oblivious to their growing notoriety. While listening to Fleet Foxes was like hearing someone recite a long-forgotten tale, Helplessness Blues, as it's name would suggest, is quite a bit more world-weary. You hear this right out of the gate, as the spring-time channeling guitar strums of Montezuma lead into front-man Robin Pecknold's opening remark, "So now I am older/than my mother and father/when they had their daughter/Now what does that say about me?/Oh, how could I dream of/such a self-less and true love?/Could I wash my hands of/just looking out for me?" Right away we have more of Pecknold than their whole first disc contained, his words forming a mediation between the band's old-timey sounds, and the concerns that the man is presently saddled with. It's quite the tight-rope to walk, but it's one that Pecknold and company know just how to navigate, simultaneously declaring HB as both modern and classic in composition.

        Another thing becomes clear by the end of Montezuma; The band knows that they don't have to go big to impress. Where Fleet Foxes opener Sun It Rises built steadily to a guitar-driven grand finale, Montezuma never spikes in any real way. What might have seemed anti-climactic in less sure hands is lent an air of complete confidence, as if the band is well aware of just how good the song is already, and doesn't feel the need to tamper. Same goes for follow-up Bedouin Dress, another sunny harmonizer (from them? No Way!) which favors a whistle-ready, ear-worm of a fiddle part over any sort of bombastic conclusion. Where most band's consider getting bigger as their ticket to the big time, Helplessness Blues sees Fleet Foxes as meticulous craftsmen, as interested in not wasting as they are in impressing. Need evidence? Just check out Battery Kinzie, a tune whose warm rumble has little to no trouble in drawing out a contented grin on a listener's face, doing so in under three minutes, without any of the second-half heroics of Ragged Wood or Blue Ridge Mountains. It's a more simple musical incarnation of the group, coming to life just as their lyrics and concerns become more complex.

        There was a hint that this was coming way back when the band released the album's first single, the title-track Helplessness Blues. Though the song is presented in two parts, each is composed of some pretty simple stuff, the sturdy strum of the first half giving way to the spacious slow-down of the second. Once again, it's Pecknold's lyrics where the real complication lies, declaring his modern-day disillusionment in the opening stanza, "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/But I don't, I don't know what that will be/I'll get back to you someday soon/You will see."It's an awfully existential claim coming from a guy who names songs after mountain ranges more often than not, but the truth is that Pecknold is simply growing as a lyricist, able to put more of himself into each new song without ever crossing over into cloying territory. Pair that with his innate understanding of what words and rhymes will sound best when played off of each other ("The borrower's debt is the only regret of my youth," "In my dream, I could hardly contain it/All my life I will wait to attain it"), and you have the most well-written album of the year so far.

        Or maybe just the best album of 2011, period. It's awfully hard to think of anything that has held a candle to it so far, the band's sky-scrapping, four-part harmonies still every bit as elating as they were the first time around, still the most captivating vocalists in today's musical landscape. On first listen or two, one could be disappointed by the lack of any real single-ready, bread-winning track, but when your album literally only has one song that's anything less than great (The Shrine/An Argument, and even that tune has an absolutely stunning mid-section), stand-outs start to feel unnecessary. Instead, we're handed an album featuring many facets of a sound that is now defined: A Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young harkening number (The Plains/Bitter Dancer), a couple stripped-down, lovely ditties (Someone You'd Admire and Blue Spotted Tail), and one breezy, May getaway after another (Lorelai and Grown Ocean, among others). Those looking for the more mythological group presented by Fleet Foxes might be disappointed at first, but a few listens makes clear the album's impossibly high level of quality. It's no mistake that Helplessness Blues is being released just as the summer starts to roll around: It's an incredible outdoor listen, as warm, peaceful and assured as the season itself. So go out and get this album as soon as you can, or your friend who was just bumping Rihanna's newest might just beat you to it. They're going to be big; just watch.

Grade: A

1 comment:

  1. Fleet Foxes are not the type of band that will initially blow you away. Rather, their music has to be chipped away layer by layer before you feel like you have a grasp on it, which is a great thing for an album's longevity. From that standpoint, their music takes effort to enjoy. It has depth and cannot be taken at face value. While "Helplessness Blues" doesn't initially stand out as a classic album I think it has the potential to grow into an album that will stand the test of time and ultimately end up on a lot of "Best of 2011" lists.