If you’d asked anyone three years ago today who Fleet Foxes were, nobody would have had a clue you were talking about. Their début EP Sun Giant had been out for less than a month and they were standing on the cusp of mass popularity. That was 2008.
Now, in 2011, the Seattle band have become not only a hugely popular act in their own right, but a byword for the recent folk revival. Their mix of baroque instrumentation and multi-layered vocal harmonies has been much lauded and much copied, but they remain the high-watermark for all contemporary folk acts to try and match. Rarely have the peaks of their glorious first album Fleet Foxes been tested by any other bands, and sophomore record Helplessness Blues, due out May 3rd, has been eagerly anticipated ever since people finished their first spin of FF’s first album.
Opening with the lone guitar and vocals of ‘Montezuma’, it’s instantly apparent that lead singer and beardmaster-in-chief Robin Pecknold hasn’t forgotten what made that first album such an audial joy. Although a touch more electric in its beginnings, the track picks up where Fleet Foxes left off, mixing the intimate with the fantastical, and climaxing in a sonorous choral harmony under Pecknold’s refrain: “Montezuma to Tripoli, oh man oh my oh me”. The first lines of this song – “And now I am older/Than my mother and father/Were when they had their daughter/Now what does that say about me?” – feel a lot more personal than some of the more escapist hooks of the first record, and firmly ground the song in experience rather than daydreams. However, despite this change, it’s one of the best tunes on the album, instrumentally quite sparse in places but maintaing a wondrous vocal line throughout.
In interviews regarding the album, the Foxes frontman has been somewhat cryptic about his band’s sophomore LP. Using Van Morrison’s superb Astral Weeks as a touchstone, Pecknold stated that he wanted an increased sense of immediacy in the group’s sound: the songs were recorded live, with imperfections and small errors left in. The result is a decidedly homespun, almost rustic charm reminiscent of Bon Iver’s début, which was recorded almost entirely in a small, isolated Wisconsin cabin with limited equipment. What this tactic also hammers home is the sheer talent of the band: to hit the harmonious heights of ‘Helplessness Blues’ or ‘Sim Sala Bim’ is highly impressive in a (albeit intentionally) restricted timeframe.
Another new facet of Helplessness Blues is a longer, more expansive intention. Fleet Foxes contained only one song (‘Ragged Wood’) over 5 minutes, but this album has three. Each is compartmentalised; the title track starts as a percussive, acoustic guitar-led number but shifts into a slow-paced second half which gives more breathing space to the magical vocals the group are renowned for. The other two longer numbers, ‘The Plains/Bitter Dancer’ and ‘The Shrine/An Argument’ are even more wide-ranging, both feeling like a blend of folk and post-rock. Unfortunately these latter two don’t hang together nearly as well, feeling more overwrought than perhaps they should and lacking that recurrent, memorable central melody that the best Foxes songs possess.
Indeed, this is a decidedly divided album, but not in a bad way. The first half seems more predicated on recapturing the optimistic, uplifting sound the group mastered on their début, while the second half is more wistful, reflective; this feels like an old LP in many ways, where we flip it over to find something new on the other side. ‘Lorelai’ is a charming, soothing Foxes throwback, but even its lyrics are tinged with regret: “I was old news to you then” mourns the central refrain. The rest of the album’s second act standouts – ‘Grown Ocean’, ‘Someone You’d Admire’ – are far less catchy than their predecessors. This is no bad thing; it shows the band’s desire to mould a new sound to compliment their existing one and that they are not content to rest on their laurels.
The real problem that Helplessness Blues faces, of course, is the album that preceded it, and its massive impact. Now that the Fleet Foxes sound is far more common currency, its highs must be even higher in order to still impress. To their huge credit, the Seattle six-piece have managed to match, and at some points exceed, the best of the first album. Alas, on occasion they also sink below the bottom of their début; it’s important to note, though, that even these rare moments are still far superior to the best many bands can offer.
Is Helplessness Blues better than Fleet Foxes? Honestly, no. But is it in contention to be one of the best albums of the year so far? You’d best believe so. When this record is good, it’s magnificent.
Best tracks: ‘Montezuma’, ‘Helplessness Blues’, ‘Battery Kinzie’, ‘Lorelai’.
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