By Jon Stone | @jwstone - April 28, 2011
Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy
On the self-titled debut by the Fleet Foxes, the band captured wide attention by releasing, arguably, the most well-crafted, vocal harmony-based folk-rock record we've heard since the heyday of Crosby, Stills & Nash. Those harmonies, led by the combination of Robin Pecknold’s striking voice and intensely catchy and singable melodies on songs like “White Winter Hymnal,” “Ragged Wood,” and (one of my favorite songs of the last decade) “Blue Ridge Mountains,” secured the band’s spot on the top of critics’ favorite lists, on sold-out tours, and as the headliners at a number of festivals all between its release in early 2008 and late 2009 when they finally packed things in. Two short years and the band went from relative obscurity to becoming one of the biggest acts in indie rock.
I saw the Fleet Foxes at the Newport Folk Festival at the end of summer '09 and was impressed by how well, even in that large, outdoor setting, they recreated the sound and aesthetic of the record. And so, for the last several years I’ve been waiting with trepidation – hoping that the band can do it again. That expectation, as I’ve written before, is probably not fair, but it’s what we do with our darlings – we hold out hope that the years haven’t changed us and that our reunion will be as sweet in spite of the now-fading memories of time spent together. Nevertheless, with a record and love like Fleet Foxes, it’s difficult not to hold the band to a high standard. Admittedly however, reports of delays due to illness, nit-picking perfecting, and at least one back-to-the-drawing-board report caused those expectations to deflate, if just a little.
It’s tough, then, to describe my reaction to Helplessness Blues (out May 3rd on Sub Pop) without sounding heart-struck. The new record is being released at the best possible moment. I started listening to it a few weeks ago just as winter was releasing its unrelenting grip on central Illinois, so the warmth of Helplessness Blues seemed to be responsible for the budding trees and singing birds rather than the rotation of the earth. As summer comes, and judging from the reactions I’m starting to see from folks listening to early streams, others are likely to have the same dissociative experience. The Fleet Foxes will bring sunshine to the masses this year.
The opening track, “Montezuma,” is the perfect example of this. In some sort of animated alternate reality, the song would burst from the clouds as a sunrise, gently casting its rays into cold corners and waking up yawning wildlife. Man, that’s corny, but that may be the secret to this record: It is a musical act of shameless sincerity. When some artists make the attempt, sincerity comes off as disingenuous and cheesy -- like a peck on the cheek of your mother-in-law. But Helplessness Blues is art without irony, which, given the saturated irony market, is an achievement in and of itself.
It just grows from there. Nearly every song is wonderful and positive, but I especially like the second track, “Bedouin Dress,” which shifts from that sunrise into an up-tempo midmorning jaunt toward optimism. “Sim Sala Bim,” which follows, has such a lovely lyric/melody pairing:
He was so kind, such a gentleman, tied to the oceanside
Lighting a match on the suitcase's latch in the fading of night
Ruffled the fur of the collie ‘neath the table
Ran out the door through the dark
Carved out his initials in the bark
Pastoral? To be sure. Try listening more than twice without joining in (and considering the purchase of a collie).
The record’s centerpiece, touchstone, and namesake is “Helplessness Blues.” In addition to being musically anthemic, its message is fascinating. The song argues for a revision of American Dream thinking -- one that deemphasizes the mythic American Individual in favor of useful anonymity. The functioning cog and sore orchard farmer metaphors hint toward a new collective good, “something beyond me,” that still emphasizes hard work and toil, but with different results that mere individual prosperity. Indeed, that song may be a socialist masterpiece.
As you can tell, I could go on, but I’ll just mention a few more details to be listening for: I love the flute on “The Plains / Bitter Dancer” – it’s straight off of an old Nick Drake record (see "The Thoughts of Mary Jane"). “The Shrine /An Argument” is an exercise in contrast: The vocal power of Pecknold’s line “Sunlight over me, no matter what I do” gets me every time and I find the weird horn counterpoint thing at the end (which you’re sure to hear about) utterly cool. There are glimmers of Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends all over this record. Finally, and as a 30-something getting used to the paradoxes of activist ambitions/intensions matched against the temptation of ever-encroaching easy ambivalence, “Someone You’d Admire” seems to speak directly to me as does the hopeful message of “Grown Ocean.” Indeed, among other successes Helplessness Blues has a keen sense of audience.
One fascinating residual effect of the new album’s affect is the shadow that it casts over the debut. Helplessness Blues is so strong from beginning to end, that the first album, despite its undisputed goodness and success, feels like a "Baroque pop" relic. Many of the old songs sound now like mere exercises or warm-ups for the real thing which we now, happily, possess.