Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
[SUB POP/BELLA UNION]
Typically when a new band begin to produce and perform their material for a baying crowd and an expectant label, each member is metaphorically wearing blinders, with their eyes fixed solely to the creatively arduous road ahead. It’s later on in an older more established group’s career that they might choose to defer their god-like status occasionally, in favour of solo-projects and the like.
Fleet Foxes have the unusual problem of starting proceedings with band members already pursuing other ventures. Singer Robin Pecknold released three songs for free via SoundCloud download in March under his own name. Drummer Josh Tillman has always opened Fleet Foxes’ shows with his husky vocal and folk guitar side-project, which saves on time when searching for support acts. But at what point does a side-project obstruct the progress of your primary focus? During the difficult second album stage, apparently. As the band’s drummer and co-arranger, for Tillman to depart for a winter tour of 2009 through to 2010 was a pretty major inconvenience. What’s more, the strains of difficult-second-album-syndrome took their toll on Pecknold’s girlfriend, who ended their five-year relationship.
Staggeringly, all that now seems rather trivial in the wake of this monstrous record.
Before pressing play, attention is drawn straight to song titles, which are quirky and have no immediate relation to the lyrics they summarise. Some might say pretentious, pompous. But on closer lyrical inspection, where a repeated refrain might cry out “song title!!”, admittedly ‘Montezuma’ looks and sounds better than ‘Oh Man Oh My Oh Me’. Whilst this would present a nightmare for marketing, and people hoping to memorise song titles after one or two listens, they are actually just about unusual enough to succeed anyway. Bob Dylan does it, where everything is ”something‘ blues’.
This device transcends through into the actual lyrics themselves. Whilst a bit too flimsy to be real poetry, this is only their second album and Pecknold is still finding his feet. The majority of words protrude through their natural linguistic inability to conform to Pecknold’s melody, because here we have a lot of disyllabic words in places where the natural flow of the melody longs for monosyllabic. However this is a folk tendency I think Pecknold is genuinely branching further and further out into as a songwriter, because whilst initially it all seems a bit messy, the harmonies glue the whole thing together with gloriously tight cohesion.
Although the “white snow” was once as “red as strawberries in summertime”, Fleet Foxes don’t describe their music as strawberry, blackcurrant, or any other type of popular fruit preserve, but rather as “baroque harmonic pop jams”. And this is still the essence of Helplessness Blues, but it’s not very Beach Boysy anymore, they’ve left that far behind. Turned those lights off, and gotten dark.
Things are sometimes counter-intuitive. Sadly the presence of a riff-rocking flute cries stagnant Nick Drake every time, however the flute flurries in halcyon album closer ‘Grown Ocean’ are completely inventive and compliment the dreamy nature well. ‘Battery Kinzie’ is a real foot stomping highlight and probably my favourite from the record whilst the most curious track, ’The Shrine/An Argument’, soon to be deemed the “experimental one” I imagine, contains a chaotic brass hoo-ha not too dissimilar from Radiohead’s ‘The National Anthem’ freak-out. It’s both uncomfortable and pressing.
From the opening nylon pickings of ‘Lorelai’, it’s clear this one owes a considerable debt to Bob Dylan’s ’4th Time Around’ from 1966′s Blonde on Blonde. Even Pecknold’s melody seems borrowed. Ironic since he sings “if to borrow is to take and not return/I have borrowed all my lonesome life” on ‘Bedouin Dress’…kind of sums up the album’s questioning of self-worth and achievement.
Opening song ‘Montezuma’ summarises Helplessness Blues quite nicely. For me, it was instantly recognisable after making the rounds on Pecknold’s mini-tour with Joanna Newsom. It’s always interesting to see the development of a song from wordless demo to full-band celebration, and even more pleasing when the process improves it. After a bare intro in the solo style plaguing the recording process, a beautifully written folk-number reveals itself with bassy backing vocals down in the depths of Stornoway. But it’s when every member offers their emphatic input at 2.14, that the result is spine-chillingly euphoric.
This unity is ultimately what Helplessness Blues and Fleet Foxes as a band, stand for; where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Fleet Foxes – BBC Maida Vale Session
-James Godwin, April 29th, 2011
- How To Write a Popular Song and Make Millions II (feat. Fleet Foxes – Lorelai) (informalflick.wordpress.com)
- Watch: New Fleet Foxes – Grown Ocean (informalflick.wordpress.com)
- Stream Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues at NPR Music (informalflick.wordpress.com)