Artist: Fleet Foxes
Album: Helplessness Blues
Label: Sub Pop
Review Guest-Written by Pierce Courchaine
While the world toted Fleet Foxes’ debut album as a harmonic eargasm, I scoffed at the band’s mundane instrumentals and lack of catchy hooks. But as if the band heard my complaints directly, Helplessness Blues remedies some of my early annoyances while not losing any of the band’s folky cred.
The first Song of an album will often set the pace and stage for the rest of the album’s tracks. “Montezuma,” the first track of Helplessness Blues, welcomes listeners in a more hospitable way than “White Winter Hymnal” ever did. The song eases in with a pop ballad complete with complimentary harmonies (as opposed to a Christmas Carol-esque, overbearing harmonies of “White Winter Hymnal”). The sense of loss is felt particularly in the lyrics on this track; But not of the loss of someone else, but a loss of one’s original direction and purpose. The song even shakes a fist at America’s direction as it references the US battle song “The Halls of Montezuma.” “Oh, man what I used to be / Montezuma to Tripoli,” wails singer/song-writer Robin Pecknold. At once, the name choice of the album makes sense. In the end, “Montezuma” is the catchiest pop-folk song on the album and has a twinge of a dark side.
“Bedouin Dress,” takes the Fleet Foxes into a completely different direction. The song constantly builds in tension and toward something greater and remedies my complaints about the lack of interesting instrumentals. A solo violin weaves in and out as the guitar becomes more confrontational and the vocals become more powerful. “Bedouin Dress” announces to the world that Fleet Foxes isn’t the soft folk band it once was.
If you’re reading this review, chances are you have already listened to the album’s title track/first single “Helplessness Blues.” I think the song harkens back to America’s first folk revival of the 1960s. The song, like much of the album, is filled with heartbreak. The acoustic strumming and echoing, ambient vocals remind of early Simon & Garfunkel tracks.
Helplessness Blues is kind of like a Nestle Wonder Ball. You have some idea what’s going to be in there: harmony, acoustics, etc, but you just don’t know what exactly. You know each track is going to, ahem, “taste” good. But each track has a different little surprise inside. I was shocked by the free jazz-inspired horns on the 8-minute opus “The Shrine/An Argument,” and ultimately rejoiced at the idea of this little indie outfit from Seattle evolving.
The album is not without faults, of course. Some tracks, such as “Sim Sala Bim,” “Blue Spotted Tail” regress to my complaints of the last album and are nothing but pretty singing and simple instrumentals.
It seems as though the band avoided the sophomore slump by igniting itself with a certain confidence. The group takes more risks, lyrically and musically. For that, I applaud the band. Reaching out and borrowing from other genres and influences can only make Fleet Foxes better at this rate.
Grade: A- (90)