Saturday, January 14, 2012

Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes

Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes are from Seattle and the members of the band are Robin Pecknold, Skye Skjelset, Josh Tillman, Casey Wescott, Christian Wargo, and Morgan Henderson. The first Fleet Foxes album (Fleet Foxes) was released on Sub Pop in 2008, and though the band s intention was to record a new album in the 6-8 months following its release, the reception of the record was such that Fleet Foxes found themselves very busy, touring consistently through the end of 2009.

Engineered and mixed by Phil Ek and co-produced by Phil and the band, the new Fleet Foxes record is called Helplessness Blues. Recording for Helplessness Blues began in April 2010 at Dreamland Recording in Woodstock, NY and continued off and on through November of that same year back in Seattle at numerous studios, including Bear Creek, Reciprocal Recording and Avast. Like very nearly every worthwhile thing, making this album was not easy; it was a difficult second album to make. Drawing inspiration from folk/rock from about 1965 to 1973, and Van Morrison s Astral Weeks in particular, Helplessness Blues sees Fleet Foxes heighten and extend themselves, adding instrumentation (clarinet, the music box, pedal steel guitar, lap steel guitar, Tibetan singing bowls, vibraphone, etc., along with more traditional band instrumentation), with a focus on clear, direct lyrics, and an emphasis on group vocal harmonies. We have it on good authority that the album is called Helplessness Blues for at least a couple of reasons. One, it's kind of a funny title. Secondly, one of the prevailing themes of the album is the struggle between who you are and who you want to be or who you want to end up, and how sometimes you are the only thing getting in the way of that.

Having heard Helplessness Blues, we mean to get out of its way.

Something remarkable is going on here and its great to watch and listen. Two observations to start with, if as suggested in the music press that Fleet Foxes main man Robin Pecknold has poured his heart and soul into their second album "Helplessness blues" it has paid off and this not only equals their great debut but surpasses it. The second reflection is that New Musical Express has given this album a paltry two stars in a hideously awful review from an increasingly irrelevant music magazine. This in itself should encourage you to buy it since "Helplessness blues" is a triumphant classic and while its stays firmly within the orbit of harmony heavy folk rock of "Ragged Wood" it marks a substantial and mature progression for this Seattle band. This is particularly pronounced in terms of Pecknold's songwriting skills which take off into the stratosphere and the band produce some of the greatest soaring harmony singing this side of Simon and Garfunkel's "Bookends" and the great debut by Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Start with the brilliant title track. This song is divided into two parts firstly a introspective set of lyrics by Pecknold leads to a vocal tour de force which at 2.58 then moves into a sublime Fleet Foxes harmony workout. It is easily one of the best songs released this year but is matched on the album but equally bold contributions. "Sim Sala Bim" is delightful haunting folk song which splits into two parts with the CSN influence especially pronounced in its forceful second part. The reflective opener "Montezuma" sees Pecknold in a pensive mood questioning, "So now I am older/Than my mother and father/, When they had their daughter/Now what does that say about me" over almost warm religious style harmonies. It contrasts with the joyous "Battery Kinzie" probably the song that could have sat most happily on their debut. The albums centerpieces are two episodic songs of which first up is "The Plains/Bitter Dancer" a six minute journey containing some of the albums best harmonies and the albums longest track "The Shrine/An argument" a sort of baroque "Paranoid Android' with a powerful vocal by Pecknold which takes us on a journey from folk to a wig out free jazz conclusion. It is stirring perfection and will take audiences by storm on the forthcoming UK tour.

Other highlights include "Lorelai" which owes a huge debt to one of Dylan's best but not always most heralded songs "4th Time Round" from "Blonde on Blonde". Then there is the intriguing instrumental "Cascades", the slightly jazzy "Bedouin Dress" and two of the most gorgeous songs Pecknold has penned. First the lush "Something to admire" and the truly sublime sparse acoustics of "Blue Spotted Tail" where we can forgive Pecknold's "hippy" affectations for the wonderful sweet yearning which underpins it. The whole thing is topped off with the cherry on the cake that is "Grown Ocean" which was the highlight of the set they performed on Jools Holland with Pecknold's voice cracking as the songs pace picked up and surged. It starts with him announcing "In that dream I'm as old as the mountains/Still is starlight reflected in fountains/Children grown on the edge of the ocean/Kept like jewellery kept with devotion". It builds to a massive acoustic crescendo with the band firing on all cylinders and concludes with a gentle verse.

It is a fitting ending to an album, which sees the band radically redefine as oppose to reinvent their sound, but by doing so build on the brilliance of their debut and actually "outpunch" it. This album is a flashbulb moment for music in 2011. It sets down an American benchmark for others to aspire towards, in the same way that PJ Harvey's "Let England Shake" has done in the UK. God knows how the Fleet Foxes follow this album (although we thought that after "Ragged Wood" and the "Sun Giant EP") for as it stands "Helplessness Blues" is the sound of rock music redemption.

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