Release Date: May 3, 2011
Record label: Sub Pop
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Indie Rock, Indie Folk
Review Summary: The next classic addition to America's great, historic folk canon. The question of authenticity runs rampant throughout the history of America's folk canon. Since Francis J.
Click to listen to the Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues The beauty is skin-deep on the second album by the Pacific Northwest band Fleet Foxes. With its gleaming acoustic guitars, acid-folk brush strokes (harmonium, hammered dulcimer) and warming choral harmonies, Helplessness Blues is vocalist-songwriter Robin Pecknold's dazzling evocation of early-Seventies rock Eden: the Sunflower-era Beach Boys and the spaced-cowboy romance of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, dosed with the Indo-Celtic exotica of the Incredible String Band. Fleet Foxes Get Existential on Second Album, 'Helplessness Blues' Underneath, you find trouble-songs loaded with blown chances, battered ideals and impending mortality.
Photo by Sean Pecknold.
Sweet and sly, Fleet Foxes make stellar second album After their eponymous debut album earned a well-deserved standing ovation from critics, Fleet Foxes set the bar high for their sophomore album. The alt-folk band was up to the challenge. Helplessness Blues is an album that is sweet and comforting at its worst and inspiring at its best. While some bands can’t keep an entire album within a similar tempo range without producing a muddled, bland collection of songs, Fleet Foxes excels in meaningful simplicity.
Despite the bearded, reclusive, and even curmudgeonly persona that their 2008 self-titled debut conveyed with its archaic, charmingly outdated Appalachian quirks and grandfatherly lyricism, Fleet Foxes are quite the savvy bunch of Seattleites. Case in point: their second album, Helplessness Blues, where the indie-folk sextet seeks not to reinvent the wheel, but to enrich the rustic, baroque-flavored sincerity of their young oeuvre. It’s a classic case of not fixing what isn’t broken, and Fleet Foxes have wisely recognized that their uniquely antiquated, harmony-driven sound can withstand a few tweaks, but no massive reinvention.
Lets face it. In first-world countries, the question of a wandering spirit in today’s age of supermodernity has become increasingly quaint, if nearly nonexistent. All the values modernists fought for have been promptly replaced by acquisitive concerns, whether it’s quick wealth expansion, greater living standards, or the hunger for affirming one’s own supremacy.
Fleet Foxes' unpretentious, crowd-pleasing directness was the key to their rapid rise. Their Sun Giant EP and self-titled debut LP, both released in 2008, brimmed with inviting melodies, evocative lyrics, and open-armed harmonizing that seemed designed to reach a wide variety of listeners. Their bright folk-rock sound wasn't exactly "cool," but that was sort of the point-- it's familiar in the most pleasing way, lacking conceit or affectation.
And so it is, we find ourselves again at the dreaded potential of a sophomore slump. For better or worse, every artist that’s released an even semi-solid debut has to face it at one point or another. And it’s a strange event in an artist’s career. There’s a very slim chance of landing in a gray area: Either you fail, or you flourish.
In interviews since Fleet Foxes began work on Helplessness Blues, Robin Pecknold has made it clear he wanted to move away from its pop sensibilities and toward murkier folk territory. He name-dropped seminal stuff like Roy Harper’s Stormcock as inspiration. Those hoping for that sort of proggy departure though—with ten-minute suites and vocals wobbling with chorus effects—will be disappointed.
Props to Helplessness Blues for making the fretless zither cool again. On their second album, Fleet Foxes continue to take their music in unusual directions, creating a baroque folk-pop sound that hints at a number of influences -- Simon & Garfunkel, Fairport Convention, the Beach Boys -- but is too unique, too esoteric, too damn weird to warrant any direct links between the Seattle boys and their predecessors. It's still a downright gorgeous record, though, filled to the brim with glee club harmonies and the sort of stringed instruments that are virtually unknown to anyone who didn't go to music school (and even if you did, when's the last time you rocked out on the Marxophone?).
The area in which rock music meets poetry is seldom a happy place, so it's with a mild sense of panic, five minutes into Helplessness Blues, that the listener realises they're in the presence of a song loosely based on the work of WB Yeats. In fairness, you can see why his poetry might appeal to the Seattle sextet. It's as thick with references to folk tales as their music is with allusions to folk music; a bit mystical – befitting a band who write songs named after the magician's cry of Sim Sala Bim then swathe them in so much reverb it sounds as if they're performing in a church – and old enough to sound archaic: Fleet Foxes' songs, after all, inhabit a world where things keep happening 'neath other things and protagonists fail to heed the dictum of John Peel's late producer John Walters, that no one should ever eat or attend anything described using the word "fayre".
There can’t be that many downsides to releasing a universally acclaimed, platinum selling debut album, but whatever they might be, it seems Robin Pecknold has been through them since the release of Fleet Foxes in 2008. Strained personal relationships, tour exhaustion and creative difficulties have all been mentioned around the writing and recording of the Seattle band’s second LP, and you feel the band themselves have given a sly wink to their poor-me problems by naming the album Helplessness Blues. However, you wouldn’t think there was too much wrong in Pecknold’s world with your initial impressions of Helplessness Blues.
The delay between Fleet Foxes' first album and their second was partially due to a self-proclaimed sudden lack of confidence on the part of singer/lyricist/ringleader Robin Pecknold. The foremost quality of the band's debut was its startling poise, and so there might be some concern that Fleet Foxes' chief strength might be compromised. Those fears are dashed, joyfully, by the fantastic Helplessness Blues, an extension and deepening of the band's sound.
There was something so archaic and so passé, yet so comforting, about Fleet Foxes when their 2008 debut hit shelves. They were bearded Seattle twenty-somethings who were trying to recreate Laurel Canyon folk while their peers tried to recreate 1987. Not exactly the best career move, but it made Fleet Foxes unique in the blogosphere. It helps that their self-titled debut was also one of the prettiest folk albums in any era, an album of uplifting beauty, and one of the most assured debuts of the last decade.
On Helplessness Blues, their second disc of intimate, obsessively crafted folk, the bearded Seattleites take a giant step forward in their quest to turn the clock backward. While their 2008 self-titled debut won acclaim for its hushed Americana, Blues bubbles with bloodless Brit-inflected whimsy and polite mysticism. ”Why is the earth moving ’round the sun?” frontman Robin Pecknold wonders on ”Blue Spotted Tail,” revealing himself to be as sweetly retro with astronomy as he is with his muse.
While Fleet Foxes have developed a reputation for musical earnestness, their songs have always had some of the shape-shifting cunning associated with their animal namesake. Their 2008 self-titled debut cloaked itself in disparate strains of Americana — from CSNY to folk to The Beach Boys — held together by threads of vocal harmonies so pretty, they seemed more like decorative embroidery than functional seams. The result was music as comfortingly familiar as a quilt, albeit a store-bought one with the smell of the factory still on it.
FLEET FOXES play Massey Hall July 14. See listing. Rating: NN At some point the fallacy that sentimental, meaningful music can only come from flannel-clad bearded men who record in dewy log cabin studios has to dissipate. Consider the bands that Fleet Foxes brainchild Robin Pecknold is consistently compared to: CSNY and the Beach Boys.
It was Conor Kiley of glam-metal reprobates Holy Ghost Revival who gave the world the term ‘fucking canoeing music’ to nail the flaccid faux-outdoorsy sonics of [a]Fleet Foxes[/a]. Conor, babes: you wuz right. [a]Fleet Foxes[/a] suck. They’re the soy-latte house band of Starbucks.They peddle the same sort of fake-rustic rootsiness that seems to be colonising our era: all these flatpack off-the-peg dreams of Ruritania that iPad-stashing mid-lifes have taken up as a counterpoint to their rabid technophilia.
When Fleet Foxes’ 2008 debut full-length won accolades from all corners of the music world, the Seattle-based band managed to field mainstream media bear hugs without alienating their original fans. The group, centered around wunderkind singer-songwriter Robin Pecknold, pulls this off by displaying ample amounts of old school folk know-how, employing rich vocal harmonies and simple but compelling acoustic arrangements that still bear faint traces of their off-kilter, indie-folk roots. Pecknold is a notorious perfectionist, and a serious case of sophomore album jitters reportedly plagued him as he labored over final mixes of this album, which almost went through another round of revisions before his bandmates urged him to let go and move on.
The rule book of music is obviously not a precise art. The album is even now largely overlooked and still, bands like Fleet Foxes continue to deliver music built around some of its most basic fundamentals: great vibes with great people with great minds. It’s very well known just how huge the band has gotten since their first, much heralded, album but with Helplessness Blues, they’ve entirely taken their soaring music to another level.
Though born out of a fraught gestation period, this second LP is a thing of beauty. James Skinner 2011 "It was at times difficult to make this record," writes Fleet Foxes’ lead singer Robin Pecknold in the self-penned press release for Helplessness Blues, citing illness, creative doubt and reassessment as factors the Seattle sextet grappled with in following up their massively popular, critically adored debut album. Not that you’d know it from a cursory listen: Helplessness Blues sounds every bit as assured as their earlier work, but given time to unfurl in your consciousness it displays facets of the band hitherto unseen.
Fleet Foxes' Sun Giant EP in 2008 took Beach Boys harmonies monastic with a rolling, chiming, Pacific Northwest folk begging instant timelessness. Two months later, the Seattle band's eponymous LP flourished with a rich renaissance of indie roots and blues, bandleader Robin Pecknold following in the reverb-gilded footsteps of My Morning Jacket's Jim James and Band of Horses' Ben Bridwell in voicing Neil Young into a choir of restless ascension. Helplessness Blues pines for Fleet Foxes kills "White Winter Hymnal" and "He Doesn't Know Why," but that's a relative fault given the group's thrilling ambition.