(Sub Pop, Bella Union) On Helplessness Blues, the second full-length outing from Fleet Foxes, they pick up right where they left off, but this time with more honed melodies and somewhat more complex musical arrangements (albeit a few less pop hooks), all by design, according to the band. The reverb-laden vocals and huge vocal harmonies are still there, meshing with the guitar or multiple guitars. And there’s the ever-present world-music instrumentation that seems to be gaining a foothold in the Indie Rock scene and taking the airways by storm. Dissonance also plays a role in small clashes of context to keep things interesting. This is an acoustic guitar-based band that cleverly injects doses of other non-rock associated instruments for emphasis in the arrangements. Producer Phil Ek makes sure there is plenty of room for the always-prominent lead vocals and often choral-like and powerful backing vocals. Multiple synchronistic vocals become another sonic layer cushioning and complimenting the main melodies like a string section might in this context.
This is a band that admits to its ancestral folk leanings and actually names them. In more than a few of the songs, Simon & Garfunkel or Crosby, Stills & Nash are strongly invoked, along with some obvious tinges of contemporaries like Badly Drawn Boy (Damon Gough) and Arcade Fire. Little licks or longer musical passages here and there have a distinct familiar flavor of past heroes and recent indie rock radio tracks.
Like the best that came before them, Fleet Foxes put equal emphasis on lyrics and musical styling. Two hands with fingers gently clasped. Robin Pecknold’s vocals and the accompanying backing vocals channel various voices to emphasize and elevate the lyrics. There is an ethereal nature to these songs that’s never tedious, and a rhythm structure that flows like a gentle river with a just a few rocky bends to keep us wide-eyed for the entire musical journey. Along the way, we also get some very powerful musical crescendos, when called for, to emphasize a lyrical point.
The band has described their sound as "baroque harmonic pop jams," and I can’t think of any better or pithier way to describe it. Sonically, this CD sounds like it was recorded in a giant cathedral with lots of large hall reverb on the vocals and a lot of care put into capturing the vibrations of the instruments, especially the stringed ones, as well as the strikingly placed silences. The backing vocals don’t just mimic or compliment the lead vocals but serve rather as another sonic layer to cradle the lyrics. This is musical poetry at its best -- smart and dramatic without ever stepping into the melodramatic. There’s a charming innocence to the presentation of these songs.
There is lyrical introspection, as well as a youthful questioning of life’s heady issues and romantic longings, the likes of which were prominent in the folk movement of the 1960s. This is a band that borrows heavily from the past but isn’t beholden to it. Through their various instrumental ‘retrofittings,’ Fleet Foxes is singular in their ability to build soft passages into strong crescendos, then dropping into near silence, and blending their '60s folk musical influences into a unique, unified, and modern wholeness. Each song is a short narrative -- a novelette in its own right. Cumulatively, the songs tell the story of the poetic pondering of life and love for Fleet Foxes.
This CD will cheer you on a rainy summer day, making things seem far less helpless less than they might appear.
For Fans Of: Simon & Garfunkel, Florence & The Machine, Badly Drawn Boy
Standout Tracks: “Helplessness Blues,” “Bedouin Dress,” “Grown Ocean”