How do you follow-up a flawless first album? This was the dilemma facing Seattle sextet Fleet Foxes when it came time to record their sophomore record, Helplessness Blues.
The group’s self-titled debut, released in 2008, was astounding in its confidence and beauty: here was a group of guys in their early 20s who could sing their asses off (in pristine three and four-part harmonies, no less) and write intricate arrangements that revealed something new every time you listened to them. Referencing the best of ’60s folk music, Fleet Foxes came across as a modern-day Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – minus the drugs and infighting.
Critically adored, the band now faced the daunting task of trying to top themselves with album number two. In recent interviews, frontman Robin Pecknold – the group’s main songwriter – has candidly described the stress he put himself through, endlessly tinkering and re-writing parts until they met his high standards.
For the most part, Pecknold’s perfectionist streak has paid off. Helplessness Blues is a strong effort that builds on the Fleet Foxes sound without straying too far from their established style. Structurally, the music feels more sprawling than before. But on songs like “Battery Kinzie”, “The Plains/Bitter Dancer” and the title track, the band delivers enough of the familiar goods to satisfy fans. Lilting melodies? Check. Mandolin flourishes? Check. Pastoral lyrics about apple orchards and sunshine? You know it.
Are there missteps? Sure. Take the piercing sax solo toward the end of “The Shrine/An Argument”, a flurry of shrieks and squeals that sound like a goose being strangled. The boys were probably going for a jazzy Ornette Coleman vibe; instead it comes off as ridiculous and totally out-of-place. And at times, some of the tracks feel overworked, with one section segueing into another and then another… rather than just honing in on one good idea.
That said, the high points on Helplessness Blues are very high. When it comes to the depth of their songwriting and cohesion as a group, Fleet Foxes are a rare species.
Review appears in the May 5th issue of prairie dog.
Fleet Foxes in Concert: The band kicked off their current tour with a pair of shows in Vancouver last weekend (at the Vogue Theatre) and I was lucky enough to snag tickets to the first night. And wow – can those boys ever belt it out! I was in vocal heaven, but of course that might have something to do with the fact that I’m a former choir geek. (Big up to my peeps in the LeBoldus Golden Tones.)
Anyway, I loved the show and was charmed by the fact that the Fleet Foxes guys are absolute perfectionists. They’d take these lengthy breaks in between songs to re-tune the acoustic guitars and mandolins, leaving the audience to fill the somewhat awkward silence with wise-ass comments like, “We love it when you tune” and “Play some Nickelback!”
It was all in good fun though, as this crowd was so obviously full of diehards. One audience member caught Robin Pecknold’s attention and called out, “Why do you always cut off the coda in that song?” (referring to the ending of their track, “He Doesn’t Know Why.”) Pecknold responded by walking over to the piano and plunking out the melody, much to the crowd’s delight.
The casual banter between the band and the audience, coupled with the fact that everyone stayed seated throughout the entire show made it a much more laid-back concert experience than I’ve had in a while. I could stretch out my legs out into the aisle, sip my beer and not have to worry about being slammed into by some douche bag, which is often the case at packed rock shows. Sorry, I’m 30 now. I have a license to be a cantankerous old woman!
Did any of you catch Fleet Foxes live? Have you heard the new album? Let me know what you think. Take care my lovelies…