02 May, 2011

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

There is some music that catches the listener’s attention at first listen.  There is some music that demands that the listener turns the volume up and pay attention because, for whatever reason, THIS IS IMPORTANT!  And then there is some music that makes you get up from your seat, go to your car, and drive to a town 30 minutes away just so you can hold the CD in your shaking hands as you pay for your purchase in rapture, rip the plastic off the case in breathless anticipation, and have your moment completely fulfilled by the wonder that emerges from the speakers. 

That was Fleet Foxes for me. It was the music of affect, which is perfect for summer. 

In 2008, the long hot summer stretched before me with endlessly lazy possibilities.  One day I began the day by browsing through some recommended bands listed by a friend, and I came across the name of this buzzed band (Pitchfork had attached themselves to the Foxes at this point).  After some consideration, I hit play on something I assumed would be a boring twee song about failed relationships in the winter, one that was preachy and called itself a “hymn.”  There was a single a cappella voice emerging from the speakers, and soon it was joined by harmony vocals and a tambourine in the background, but it wasn’t boring.  Then, just when I thought for sure they would botch the entrance, the band emerged full scale, all mixed to precision and perfection.  “White Winter Hymnal” did what no other song has been able to do this decade, and that was cause me to rush out and buy an album without hearing any other songs because I knew at that point I needed it.  Very few music in this world ever impacts you like that.  

There’s a point when one hears songs and swears that they have been around for forever.  In the case of Oasis (and later Puff Daddy and Beady Eye), the songs have been around for some time, and often from other artists.  Fleet Foxes makes music that is supposed to sound like it has been around for years, from the arrangements to the lack of modern lyrical tropes; technology doesn’t get discussed, and everything else is supposed to become more focused around the song. 

But it’s been three years, and while it’s not an eternity in musical terms, there’s been plenty of time to discover other artists through your Genius function and through the blogosphere (speaking of which, thank you for reading!).  I worried when I heard this that Fleet Foxes would only be relegated to a specific moment in time for me. If so, then there’s the unseen bias in reviewing something that you love but that was tied to that specific time: The spontaneity of the new is gone.  Part of the reason that I gravitated towards Fleet Foxes at that time was that it was the right record at the right time, and it also sounded so fresh.  Folk-inspired pop music that has a Jim James-soundalike in Robin Pecknold, and choral harmony parts to boot?  It was like they were out there to siphon my money from me, hooking onto the parts of my brain that liked Simon & Garfunkel and the Beach Boys.  It was the perfect summer album for something that needed to sound classic. 

But the zeitgeist is unpredictable and extremely fickle.  Much of the reason why the Beatles are so beloved among pop scholars and rock fans is not because of their technical proficiency, their songwriting abilities, or even their public personalities and dramatics.  No, much of why we placed the Beatles as the greatest band to ever walk the land was their ability to rise to the occasion and create music that captured the spirit of the times.  However one wants to define the band in terms of musical importance, nobody can deny that they always had the musical accompaniment to an important cultural event or moment.  The return of rock n’ roll after Elvis started to suck?  Meet the Beatles.  Rock albums starting to get serious and move beyond love songs?  Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band lead up to the Summer of Love (and Drugs).  We need a move back to basics?  I give you the White Album and Abbey Road (Let It Be was famously overproduced by Phil Spector, and the band was on its way out, hence its exclusion).  Similarly, mass media was able to use the band as a barometer for public taste and cultural forms.  Thus, for me and many others, Fleet Foxes fit the sound of the summer of 2008 in many different ways.  It wasn’t just the sound of the band, but how it sounded in contrast to other music (Britney Spears, Coldplay and the emergent Lady Gaga).  Fleet Foxes typified what almost always happens at the end of a decade in popular music and culture, and that is a move towards a more real/authentic/organic art (and this is a fallacy, but that’s another blog at another time).  The Sixties had the move towards a more socially conscious, organic rock; the end of the Seventies brought the punk movement to answer for the “evils” of prog and disco; the end of the Eighties formed the basis for the emergence of alternative rock as a new youth movement after the vacuous end of the decade; and the end of the Nineties produced a replication of the garage rock that the Sixties and Seventies spawned. Fleet Foxes songs and productions are done in a way to make them absolutely timeless, eschewing much of the trappings of music of the past decade.  There is no Auto-Tuning, no 80’s snare drum, no keyboards, and no backup rap-soul-ringtone menagerie.  Really, it is a rejection of hybridization in favor of a purist, organic sound.  In fact, if you were to ask, this would sound like it has the recipe to be the great record that Ray LaMontagne’s second release was, an earthy product that exists to be timeless due to the sparse nature of production.  While no low-fidelity by any means, it still is a callback to a previous form of production.  

So why so much setup for the new album?  It has a lot of pedigree behind it, and the band knows this.  I’ll get the good stuff out first (FINALLY!), and upon first listen the album is achingly pretty.  The harmonies of the band are a welcome return, a warm hug on a cold spring evening and the perfect album for hipsters to hear while ordering $20 lunches from the co-op.  “Lorelai” is just waiting to be played in a Fox Searchlight film with naturalistic lighting, and with lyrics like “So I guess I got old/I was like trash on the sidewalk” there’s a level of self-effacement that works for this band (On the other hand, “You were like glue holding each of us together” needs to be excised from this band’s repertoire). 

I think that the lack of immediacy affects the band throughout the process; I believe that self-involvement has affected the sound of the record, and not in a good way.  Pecknold explained in interviews that the process of making Helplessness Blues was fraught with second-guessing, backtracking, and general “rock or pop?” questioning.  The whole album had to be remixed twice before it could be sent out.  In fact, Pecknold gave this very revealing interview to Stereogum in February of this year:

It's not surprising to see this.  After all, if the band became a success based on their collection of songs and atmosphere created, it only makes sense to attempt to recreate it, even going about it in a painstaking manner.  But therein lies a problem:  Nothing sticks out as a key track because everything is considered.  Nothing can surprise because the songs are not constructed to surprise, but rather ebb and flow.  The sound of Fleet Foxes was filled with surprises, and much of the reason why I enjoyed the 2008 release was because it was an unexpected delight, a new level of shock that as an album could be played for repeat instances. In doing so, one would point to the different levels of dynamic interplay throughout the album.  That sense of discovery has been replaced by a staid level of “meh” on this album as the band goes through the motions.  Worse yet, it sounds labored in all the wrong ways, like the band was setting out to replicate the sound of the first record without understanding that audiences wanted to see where these boys could go next. 

Indeed, the first lyrics we hear from Pecknold as the guitar is plucked in a rolling motion is quite self-analytic.  “So now I’m older than my mother and father/when they had their daughter/now what does that say about me?”  At the next couplet he’s singing about a selfless and true love, then griping about what he used to be.  “Montezuma” is a downer of an opener, no real hope or punchy beginning.  Now not every album should start with a hooky way, but a meditation on death from a bearded hipster with access to mandolin and keyboard definitely does not strike me as a classic introduction to an album brought to you by this year’s model of Simon & Garfunkel.  If it’s a mission statement from the band, it’s to whine about what they used to be; your audience is wondering the same thing, boys.  Somehow this song became stuck in my head, but “Montezuma” took several spins to weave itself into my brain, which was a definite departure from the immediacy of “Sun It Rises” on the last album.  

“Bedouin Dress” sounds better, a Rachel Getting Married outtake (in spirit, anyways) that emphasizes the power of the band to utilize multiple instruments to affect the sound of a traveling minstrel show, or at least a Connecticut bohemian rhapsody.  It sounds like classic Foxes with a melody line delivered through a violin and an a cappella bridge.  Good times have arrived at last, but if you asked me to sing back the chorus line I couldn’t do it. 

Thus, the lack of pop hooks is appearing in the songs, and this was perhaps intentional because the band is composed of serious musicians, man!  “Someone You’d Admire” is also full of itself, a spare piece that again ruminates on death.  Didn’t these guys once find happiness in the weirdest of places last album?  “Blue Spotted Tail” is another momentum killer as Pecknold accurately hits the point of “Floating through the night sky without a purpose, not a one.”  If there’s one thing that they can do on this record, it’s call them like they see them.  

But it’s not all pretension without melody.  “Battery Kinzie” is the first I could see myself loving, and it has the mojo of the older band mixed in with an insistent drumbeat.  There is enough of the old mix present for this to fully work as a way of moving forward as artists, but for the most part it is uncomplicated music that evokes a simpler emotion of happiness.  Best of all, it stays shorter than other tracks on the album.  This is a problem I find in certain sophomore albums in that bands attempt to stretch out songs without having a reason for it other than artistic hubris.  “The Plains/Bitter Dancer” suffers from this conundrum, beginning as a vocal exercise and exemplar of studio technique over songcraft, mood over tune.  Seriously, it sounds like the template for how you’d imagine Fleet Foxes warms up for their shows, and this goes on for two minutes.  This suffers from post-Pet Sounds syndrome where the band cobbles together disconnected segments of music to create the impression of an epic; it’s a fragile and precious method of writing, but it doesn’t work for the band if there are no actual songs or melodies there.  That was “The Plains/Bitter Dancer” for me, a midpoint of meandering that is a perfect accompaniment to the instrumental filler of “The Cascades.” 

“Helplessness Blues” finds the band attempting to take back the charging guitar and harmonies trick that Mumford & Sons stole from them at this year’s Grammy Awards, but the lack of a stomp or a bite to this track hurts it at the outset.  At the 2:47 mark, the band move from the acoustic mark of the beginning into a guitar-driven claim that they would work till they were sore in the orchard while the American Apparel girl waits tables at the local co-op.  This is beautiful music, and it seems rooted (haha) in the folk-rock tradition of other bands, ending with a declaration that Pecknold will be like the man on the screen someday.  Is this a claim that he will live up to his reputation simulated through his music?  Or that he will be able to pull out of the tailspin of self-consciousness on this album?  (Spoiler alert: No). 

“The Shrine/An Argument” may be the reason this record is saved for me.  A fingerpicked introduction lends a level of Sixties urgency, and Pecknold’s restrained vocals are let loose on the track.  When he hits the high notes here, excitement comes out.  My reaction when he did it was “FINALLY!  Let’s have some more, shall we?”  At the 2:30 mark, the band comes back with a pastoral, cymbal-heavy attack on the song, and then fades away into the stringed melody of the track.  

But then, there’s a saxophone freakout at 6:40 that knocked me out of my seat.  As strings elevate the track to beach party makeout heaven, this blast of noise made me very hopeful.  It is a sound akin to Brian Wilson going nuts in the studio, throwing a curveball just because he could, and God bless the boys for putting this in there.  It didn’t sound forced, it sounded fun, and the album needed more moments like it.  Fortunately, they deliver again at the end with “Grown Ocean,” which even begins with a “1-2-3-4” drumstick count before they move forward with the strings beautifying what is a sweet call for life to be lived. However, I worry that in my case it was "too little, too late" in terms of levity.  

I don’t necessarily think that I’m the right person to review a Fleet Foxes album, because if one wants to know how the voices and instrumentation work together I can say that it’s done extremely well and with a great deal of harmony.  What I can also tell you is that the immediacy of the previous record has been replaced by a contemplative side of the band that is struggling to work out where to go next, and with it they’ve decided to sideline the joy that caused me to run out and buy the album in the first place.  Some might see this as the next step in the band’s output, but I see it as a holding pattern.  Let’s hope that Fleet Foxes don’t folk themselves out of mattering by thinking too much about it.  


Eric Lahm said...

Another FANTASTIC bit by Mr. Moody! You know my affinity for The Fleet Foxes as I listen to their debut album on repeat at least one day a month, and a better description of that album there could not be. I won't even attempt to expand upon your words here, because it's as though you plucked them out of my own brain.

(Side Note: the music video for White Winter Hymnal is unbelievably awesome! How had I not seen that before?)

I find your Simon & Garfunkel reference somewhat amusing. Not be cause it is incorrect, but because for me this didn't come until I heard the Helplessness Blues album. For some reason I think that the greatest thing about the first album was that they were able to so obviously inject the Scarborough Fare boys without me immediately thinking of them (perhaps because at that same time was was introduced to Kings of Convenience, whom I believe have a much more potent relation to Simon & the Funk).

The first album felt undiscovered, as though they had actually been playing in the hills of Eastern Kentucky by themselves for years. And one day they simply decided to come down from the mountains and into my living room and unleash this sound just for me and no one else. That magic is lost in Helplessness Blues.

I think your assertion that this album is simply in a "holding pattern" is spot on. I do not dislike anything I hear on the album, in fact, I rather enjoy most of it. But the difference between Helplessness Blues & Fleet Foxes for me is simply that I will pull out the debut album and listen to it straight through with undivided attention. And when Helplessness Blues comes on, I will let it continue to play in the background as I move on with my day. Perhaps that's the most damning thing one can say about an album, "it's great for background fodder".

Your assertion that "Lorelai" best fits a Fox Searchlight film is hilarious, because the first time I heard that track I thought it should have been in Greenberg.

(side note: Rachel Getting Married was awesome)

In the end, I think I got what I needed out of Helplessness blues, but not what I wanted. I'm fine with them taking a few more years to find themselves, I just pray that they don't let others, such as Mumford & Sons, define the narrative by which they operate. As you stated before, what made this band great was how fresh they were, and if they want to be great again, perhaps they need to hike back up into those hills for a bit before they revisit my living room.

Moodicarus said...

All good points, Eric, especially the fact that the debut album felt undiscovered. I don't think that the magic is lost necessarily in this album, but rather that it's covered up by trying too hard. When Pecknold screams on "The Shrine/An Argument," I love it because he's having fun like they did in the first one. I would probably say that Kings of Convenience are closer to a purist folk sound, but they are a difficult listen because they don't really bust out of the mold on their albums. I have this great story of watching KoC performing this awesome cover of Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'" at SXSW 2005 where they absolutely cut loose, and it was so refreshing to see; I don't necessarily think that Fleet Foxes would do that in concert.

What frustrates me most is when any artist has greatness in their grasp but doesn't quite achieve it. Here, Fleet Foxes overshoot as opposed to just feeling the atmosphere and fun of the music.

If you think my review of the album was harsh, just check out this piece from a frustrated NME reviewer. Wow...http://www.nme.com/reviews/fleet-foxes/12024

Chris said...

My opinion of Helplessness is that they essentially avoided the Sophomore slump by dropping the B-side to Fleet Foxes. Both albums and the EP flow together beautifully and it's quite common as my 'lullaby' music. Also, excellent for a summer nap. Will their third album finally find them in a real live slump? I don't think so. I think it'll till new earth and keep me in love.