Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

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Fleet Foxes, the band’s self-titled 2008 debut, struck me as a beautiful work of music, timeless in its styling and absorbing in its vocal harmonies. That’s not a common thing when considering the landscape of popular music. Their recent concert echoed everything I like about them, even validating that what I heard is authentic rather than studio wizardry. I had heard Helplessness Blues, their second album, before the concert, but I hadn’t really listened. Sure, it was good. But would it draw me back? Would particular songs speak more loudly than others? Would only one or two choruses really catch my ear? It takes time to fully absorb some music, and, often, those albums eventually become favorites.

Such as this. 

Robin Pecknold admitted that most of these songs were recorded in 2009, but the band re-worked them in 2010 because they weren’t satisfied. I’m not sure why – I haven’t heard what was left behind. I can say that this CD was worth the wait.

The band continues with their “timeless” approach – guitars, mandolins, dulcimer and other acoustic instruments common to 1960’s folk-pop, Appalachia, or English folk music. But, they’ve also subtly moved ahead. Throw in a Tibetan singing bowl, a Marxophone, and an unsettling bari sax expression, and, yes, the band is growing stylistically. The songs on their debut were simpler in that each held a distinct form, and its pace was fairly even. Several songs here are lengthier, with instrumental breaks or changing rhythms (if not styles). In fact, as acoustic music goes, much of the music could be described as muscular. As a result, the tempo varies nicely throughout, making the entirety an enjoyable listen. There’s not a single song that I’d prefer to skip through; each has its charms.

Beyond instrumentation, another difference is that Pecknold takes lead vocals more frequently. The group’s harmonies remain, but they often are used to either shape the melody or accompany his lead, rather than present themselves as a single voice. When it comes to the actual words, well, it’s easy to get lost in the musicality of the whole, such is the musical nature of their harmonies. The lyrics read more as poetry than the scribbles of song, and they don’t prompt a particular emotional response on their own. However, read the lyrics while listening to the Pecknold, and one realizes how much he brings to the translation. Themes include the awareness of aging, the search for meaning, finding tranquility, the loss of relationships, and aspiring to be better than one is today. Mix those in amidst motifs of sun, water, and… apples, throw in harmonies... it’s Art.

I have no particular songs to recommend because I recommend the entire CD. And if you should get lost in what, to some ears, might be an old-fashioned sameness, I’d suggest you play it louder. It’s worthy of your attention.

5 of 5 STARS

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