FLEET FOXES Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop)
I’ve tried to enjoy this band, I really have. Unfortunately, to me their 2008 debut still sounds mostly like a copy of the first Crosby, Stills & Nash album that’s been for a lengthy dip in My Morning Jacket’s echo chamber. I wouldn’t deny they have the odd pretty good song – “White Winter Hymnal” and “Mykonos”, for instance – but not the half-dozen or so of the same quality that might have me feeling more charitable towards them and this. Their Bon Iver-style we-all-live-in-a-log-cabin-us preciousness and the Douglas Coupland-writing-for-Pitchfork pretentiousness of the sleevenotes are further irritants. To me they’re Arcade Fire’s country cousins, better at weaving mystique than memorable music, however much I wish I could hear what others do in them.
FLEET FOXES Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)
I freely admit to being puzzled by the apparent appeal of Fleet Foxes’ eponymous debut. To me, it sounded like the first Crosby, Stills & Nash album trapped in My Morning Jacket’s echo chamber. Happily, though, their sophomore effort had me at hello. Maybe it’s because of the sense of self-doubt that permeates from its title inwards that “Helplessness Blues” has a spine and substance that its predecessor lacked. It might not exactly be grounded in the woes of a globe in economic meltdown, but “Helplessness Blues” seems to be the sound of reality colliding with the cosy cosmic camping trip of that first album and attempting to negotiate a working compromise.
Instrumented with a musical omnivorousness reminiscent of an Incredible String Band album, here Moog and Mellotron nestle next to fiddle, mandolin, hammer dulcimer, harp, zither, harmonium, harpsichord, pedal steel and Tibetan singing bowls. There’s fierce folk-blues strumming at the close of “Sim Sala Bim”, a Spector-ish rush on “Battery Kinzie” and multi-part prog structures like “The Plains / Bitter Dancer” and “The Shrine / An Argument”. When the latter breaks out in a rash of free jazz sax skronk, like a suddenly agitated aviary, any instinct to recoil at its unpleasantness is shaded by delight that the band are trying it in the first place. The icy beauty of instrumental “Cascades” recalls the more pastoral moments of Mike Oldfield’s early albums, and the percussive thud-tish oompah of “Lorelai” can’t ground the mystery and majesty of its musical box melodies. “Grown Ocean” ends the album on a sense of child-eyed wonderment.
If some of the affectations surrounding “Helplessness Blues” don’t exactly help the album make its case – that sleeve, for example, looks as if it was preserved in aspic some time in 1968 – the music as its core does so admirably. Having since misplaced a drummer, where they go from here is anyone’s guess, but getting this far is a marvel in itself.