Crash Thursday: Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
Genre: Indie Folk/Alternative
Origin: Seattle, Washington
Oh man. Oh my. Oh me. Where I do I start with this one?
Indie folk band Fleet Foxes emerged in 2008 with their self-titled debut and Sun Giant EP, and it turned into what was arguably the best album of the year. As if their location of origin wasn't enough evidence to show how success-bound this band was, their lush, textured instrumental orientation and beautiful vocal harmonies helped formulate regenerated interest in the folk genre and gave us a fresh and majestic twist of consistently wonderful pieces of music. It was difficult whether or not to believe that those of us who loved the band's first outing would want more of the same when it came to their sophomore record, but here we are with Helplessness Blues, an album that does Fleet Foxes one better - by growing into a larger, more literary, and more focused effort.
Right off the bat, it's easy to find that Fleet Foxes provided a much more hushed and whispery vibe in comparison to the grandioseness that Helplessness Blues exudes. That isn't to say that that sound isn't found on here - it's within and without. In fact, this grander scale is notable in that it never feels self-indulgent or aware of their newfound popular and critical successes that is often associated with the so-called "sophomore slump." It almost accompanies Fleet Foxes by turning the key to which Helplessness Blues opens the door, allowing whatever was behind it to flow bountifully. The pathway the band composes feels neither too little nor too much, providing a 50-minute listening experience from beginning to end that's alive and fully realized, even under the mounting pressure from high expectations.
The record begins with "Montezuma," which is undoubtedly ranks as the best song Fleet Foxes has ever recorded. An intriguing steel drum-like guitar starts off before the rich and lush texture of vocal harmonies, bass and acoustic guitar take place. Singer Robin Pecknold pours his soul into his lyrics (as expected), delivering words of "change" that becomes evident throughout the album, such as "I wonder if I'll see any faces above me/Or just cracks in the ceiling/Nobody else to blame." Everything so truthful and revealing overcomes this track, as if you've just heard what the season of Spring sounds like and the blossoming that follows suit.
So many musical and literary references sprinkle each track. Every song warrants that kind of power, with each one uniquely different yet still in the same ballpark. "Bedouin Dress" and "Sim Sala Bim" are both mysterious in their use of differing instruments such as varying lutes and tambourines. "Battery Kinzie" comes close to being this album's "White Winter Hymnal," maintaining a pounding bass drum while holding a short and sweet candle over the repeating piano chords. The title track is wonderful guitar-laden balladry at its finest and provides some of the album's best lyrics. Songs like "Lorelai" and ending track "Grown Ocean" are welcome tracks that showcase the band's tenderness while exhibiting breathtaking performances.
Two tracks on this album are sectioned into two parts, those of which do successfully manage to be worthy additions to the balance and nature of the album's lyrical and melodic themes. "The Plains / Bitter Dancer" is finely tuned, referencing back to the vocal styles of Simon and Garfunkel and the musicality of Crosby, Stills & Nash. "The Shrine / An Argument" is a bit experimental in that it goes through different motions throughout, always unassuming that the listener might be an observer to a live performance jam. As the longest track on the album and in Fleet Foxes' catalog, it unwinds with tenacious strength and never lets go of it, even ending with an instrumental number that involves a wacky saxophone solo.
If Fleet Foxes and the subsequent EP were only delectable hints at the resurgence of folk to the masses, then Helplessness Blues solidifies it, paving the way for an open range that's naturally crafted. It stands as the best and most satisfying record so far this year, and it's the one to beat. It may not contain a song that's considered a true "single" as the immediately accessible "White Winter Hymnal," but like any great album, it provides a fresh and wholly-engaging rush of folk rock that warrants something new on each listen, from beginning to end. After all is said and done, you get the sense that the band is not only delivering a lively gig, but that they're also having fun doing what they do.
Fleet Foxes - "Montezuma"
Fleet Foxes - "Lorelai"
Helplessness Blues is available on May 3rd from Subpop Records.