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The Spin Doctor – Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues”

Posted: 05/6/2011 8:36 am

Fleet Foxes – “Helplessness Blues”

4.5 out of 5

Seattle-based quintet, Fleet Foxes, had not only one of the best debut LP’s of 2008, but one of the best records…period. Following the release of the Sun Giant EP, their self-titled debut was a gorgeous collection of baroque hymnals, stunning three and four-part vocal harmonies, and a folk-rock sensibility; or, as the band themselves describe: “baroque harmonic pop jams”. Despite their antithetical mainstream compositions, Fleet Foxes’ debut resonated with both listeners and critics, going Platinum in the UK and selling over 200,000 copies in the US, an astounding achievement for a band with such a sound.

In early 2009, the band began the grueling process of rehearsing material for their follow-up, which they hoped to release by mid 2010. The trying sessions, however, didn’t go as planned and the material was scrapped, costing the band an estimated $60,000 of their own hard-earned cash. Principal singer/songwriter, Robin Pecknold, was quite candid in describing the period as a creative and personal struggle that resulted in tension within the band and the disintegration of his five-year relationship. The resulting Helplessness Blues, is a darker, more elaborate and ambitiously complex record than its predecessor. That’s not to suggest Blues is a marked departure from the debut; the boisterous tone and Brian Wilson-style arrangements are still present, but the lyrical content is all together more melancholic. Moreover, the addition of multi-instrumentalist Morgan Henderson to the band’s line-up brings an edginess to the arrangements that was absent from the slick-sounding debut.

Pecknold’s personal struggle is stamped all over the self-referential Blues. This is immediately clear in the first few passages of the record opener “Montezuma”: “So now I am older than my mother and father, when they had their daughter, now what does that say about me? Oh how could I dream of such a selfless and true love, could I wash my hands of, just looking out for me?” Elsewhere, on the excellent title track, Pecknold comes to terms with his own role and insignificance in the world: “I was raised up believing I was somehow unique, like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see. And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be, a functioning cog in some great machinery, serving something beyond me.”

Helplessness Blues certainly has more 1960s swagger than the debut record. Check-out “The Shrine/An Argument”…all eight minutes and seven seconds of it. The track opens with an arpeggiated acoustic guitar and the harshest vocal tone Pecknold has yet to employ: “sunlight over me no matter what I do” he shouts, showing a raspiness we’ve yet to hear in his voice. The track comes to a dead stop before opening-up, picking-up the pace, and transitioning into the beautiful “An Argument”. It’s one of the loudest moments on the record with crashing cymbals, a thumping kick drum and a sadness clearly metaphoric of a disintegrating relationship: “In the doorway holding every letter that I wrote, In the driveway pulling away putting on your coat, In the ocean washing off my name from your throat, In the morning, in the morning.” The crashing then subsides, and is replaced with the somber tone of Tibetan singing bowls, before being slapped with a barrage of free-form saxophones and strings. It’s an incredibly ambitious track and, though it perhaps overreaches, it’s symbolic of a band that is not afraid to take risks for growth. It’s also indicative of a frontman attempting to distinguish himself from an accomplished ensemble. Pecknold has always been the Foxes’ frontman and principle songwriter, but on Blues, he appears much more comfortable in the role. Even when stripped to its bare bones, Pecknold’s voice and lyrics present a candidness that was absent on the debut. It’s no accident that the larger than life “The Shrine/An Argument” is immediately followed by the minimalist “Blue Spotted Tail”. The only track on the record without any reverb, Spotted Tail plays ying to The Shrine’s yang. With nothing but Pecknold’s voice and guitar, it’s a wonderful moment of solace on an otherwise complex and elaborate record.

Blues closes with a song of promise; “Grown Ocean” is a tasteful, up-tempo blend of all of the things you’ve come to expect from a Fleet Foxes tune. It’s innocuous in so much as it is indistinguishable from anything off of the debut. But it shows just how easily it would have been for the band to complete another competent record void of any real growth or risk. Though Helplessness Blues lacks the immediate draw and simplicity of the debut, instrumentally and lyrically there is so much more to explore. And though they are clearly attempting to move away from American influences such as the Beach Boys and CSNY, to the less commercial British influences of Pentangle and Roy Harper (Pecknold has stated Helplessness Blues was inspired by Harper’s 1971 record Stormcock), it never seems to be contrived or plagiaristic. It may have cost them $60 large, but if the music on Blues is any indication, they should make it back ten-fold.

- Ewan Christie

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