Fleet Foxes, the popular Seattle folk band, have a new album set to release on May 3, 2011.
Helplessness Blues manages to retain the melodic harmonies and old time-y influences that made the band’s first album such a gem among dull, indie rocks. At the same time, it brings more to the table in terms of maturity, craftsmanship and optimism than their self-titled 2008 release dared.
The album gets off to a beautiful beginning with “Montezuma,” an echoing acoustic track harking back the Fleet Foxes’ previous work. It is quiet, charming and easy to sing along with in the way the glorious “White Winter Hymnal” was, without having to pack too much of a deeper meaning.
Most of the album — while just as good — does not follow the footsteps of this recognizable sound. The next track, “Bedouin Dress,” takes a turn into higher-level narrative while also experimenting with the addition of an upbeat, clacking rhythm and string instruments reminiscent of gypsy music.
The track can only be described as “sunny” and many of its lines stick with the listener. “I saw you among the crowd/in a geometric pattern dress/gleaming white just as I recall/Old as I get I will never forget it at all.” It makes me think of stopping at lemonade stands and running through sprinklers.
Though Helplessness Blues has its low points (not in terms of quality but of mood) and its wintry eeriness, like in “The Plains / Bitter Dancer,” most of the album is in step with the lightness of the second track. Intentionally or not, with their second album Fleet Foxes has moved from winter into spring, and I’m a fan of the changing seasons.
Perhaps it is something about the circumstances surrounding the production of this album that led to this movement. According to a brief “promotional biography” that he wrote for Sub Pop Records, Robin Pecknold was asked to open a series of Joanna Newsom shows around the time he had begun writing songs for Helplessness Blues. The gig encouraged him to write songs he could play by himself, leading him to concentrate more on strong melodies and story telling.
It presumably also pushed him to find his own voice — one that is sometimes overly shy and overshadowed in a sea of talented singers in Brian Wilson-esque harmonies. On this album, it rings loud and clear, especially on tracks like “The Shrine / An Argument.”
Pecknold belts out his lines in this track. It’s powerful and absolutely captivating. But almost immediately, the song dips back into a subdued harmony, as if the band tried to highlight the changes in their sound. It’s more likely that they were experimenting with their own ranges than making a conscience effort. Either way, I’m not sure if it works.
I don’t particularly like the abruptness of the change in style here, nor do I think the discord towards the end really adds to the song (it does remind me of “False Advertising,” a Bright Eyes track I’m fond of). I love the power that Pecknold brings out too much to go back to harmonies right away, just like I love the hot-blooded guitar riffs at the end of “Sim Sala Bim” too much to settle for sloppy wind instruments.
Still, these minor discrepancies should not tarnish the album — and they don’t for me. I loved where moments in their last LP would bring me, whether it was yelling, “I was following the … I was following the … ” (x 8) out of the car windows on the way to school early in the morning, or feeling beside myself with loneliness while “Blue Ridge Mountain” played and the sun set at Coachella two years ago.
I can’t say there is any one track on this album that brings me to either extreme. But as a whole, it is worth many listens.
Fleet Foxes have matured considerably and I look forward to seeing what they come up with next. Meanwhile, it’s nice being in a moment of museic filled with optimism. It’s nice being in spring.
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