First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2011, Volume 18, #9
Written by John Metzger
Mon December 19, 2011, 05:30 AM CST
Three years ago, on its self-titled debut, Fleet Foxes grabbed the attention of music critics and indie-music fans alike by avoiding the trappings of most modern-day efforts. Instead, the outfit slipped effortlessly into the past, filling its album with unpretentious folk-pop songs that blurred the line between The Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Fleet Foxes’ encore took awhile to construct, and at times, it seemed as if the project would never be born. Sessions were scrapped; songs were rebuilt. The end result, though, was well worth the wait.
Helplessness Blues is one of those efforts that is immediately irresistible and wholly gratifying. Yet, it also withstands closer scrutiny by revealing additional layers, textures, and complexities with each journey through its 12 tracks. The Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills and Nash continue to weigh heavily upon the Fleet Foxes’ output. At the same time, though, the group — under the guiding light of front man Robin Pecknold — now draws inspiration from an abundance of other places: the insistent importance of Simon & Garfunkel, the British-bred folk of Fairport Convention, and the worldly psychedelia of The Incredible String Band, to name a few.
Simple on its surface, yet brimming with ideas, Helplessness Blues has far more rhythmic drive than Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut did. It also is shaded with darkness and tension. This time, Fleet Foxes constructed songs that sound like multi-part symphonies. Within their carefully crafted framework, the group captures moments that run the gamut from intimate spirituality to transcendent harmonic resplendence to quiet, heartbroken reflection.
For Fleet Foxes, the beauty truly is in the details: On Helplessness Blues, there are cymbals that crash, a timpani that rumbles, a fiddle that tugs at the heartstrings, and voices that intertwine above a bed of acoustic and electric guitars. With its sonic paintings, Fleet Foxes clearly is aiming for the magisterial heights of Brian Wilson’s SMiLE. As improbable as it might seem, Helplessness Blues sometimes fulfills the outfit’s lofty goal. Even at its lowest point, the effort ultimately is more dynamic and engaging than it initially seems like it will be.
Fleet Foxes’ growth isn’t limited to its musical arrangements either. Pecknold has always had a way with words, but on Helplessness Blues, his lyrics are frequently filled with poetic flourishes that recall the early works of Paul Simon. Like the music that surrounds them, his reflections assume a darker tone. On the opening track Montezuma, he ponders the loneliness of death, and the weariness of his daily struggles — a reflection, no doubt, of the album’s problematic genesis — pervades the affair. Even so, Pecknold often clings to innocence and longs for simpler times, singing of apples in the summer on The Shrine/An Argument and of orchards and a golden-haired girl on the title track.
Such lofty concepts could have felt self-indulgent and trite, but time and again on Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes strikes the right balance between Pecknold’s deeply personal introspection and an examination of the universal truths of life. Like most outings in the modern era, Helplessness Blues offers little to the world that hasn’t been said or done before. Nevertheless, Fleet Foxes has found a way of bringing its words and music together in a way that not only is strikingly moving, but also feels remarkably fresh, vibrant, and alive. ½
Of Further Interest...
Helplessness Blues is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2011 The Music Box