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Fleet Foxes
Helplessness Blues (Vinyl LP)

Review By Derek va Veen

 

  A lot of ink has been spilled about the Portland, Oregon via Kirkland, Washington band Fleet Foxes.  After an impressive self-published EP which resulted in a record contract with Sub Pop and subsequent critically-acclaimed second EP and eponymous debut LPs in 2008, the band spent a few years of touring and writing before releasing their sophomore double-LP in May 2011.  This album, titled Helplessness Blues is a gorgeous, haunting exploration into the folk wing of so-called indie music (known in prior generations as alternative or college music).  Any concerns Fleet Foxes may have in falling prey to the sophomore slump have been definitively laid to rest with this recording.

While not as florid in his use of language as fellow Portland artist Colin Meloy of The Decemberists, the lyrics of vocalist Robin Pecknold paint just as evocative visions of relationships gone astray and musings on his purpose in the world – fertile ground for most songwriters, but Pecknold manages to do so without sounding insipid or self-important.  The musical arrangements of Pecknold, drummer Joshua Tillman multi-instrumentalist Casey Wescott are also fantastic, complementing the lyrics with soaring vocal harmonies and instrumental accompaniment reminiscent of Simon & Garfunkel or CSNY as employed on such singles as "Battery Kinsey" and "Helplessness Blues" (my clear pick for the emotional and musical high-point of the album) or sparse orchestrations that suddenly bloom as with "SimSalaBim" or Side C's "Someone You'd Admire".  Likewise, "The Plains" portion of "The Plains/Bitter Dancer" is reminiscent of some of Brian Wilson's better vocal arrangements for the Beach Boys while the "Bitter Dancer" interlude musically and lyrically wouldn't sound out of place in a 1970s western.

Sides C & D continue the thematic elements of the first two sides (relationships, cosmic angst) while still remaining fresh musically and lyrically.  The ¾ time "Lorelei" with its opening lyrics ‘So, guess I got old, I was like trash on the sidewalk' manages to make the depressing subject of being dumped sound ironically magical and uplifting.  The only jarring portion of the album is the dissonant saxophone solo during the ‘argument' portion of "The Shrine/An Argument" which musically makes sense, but still is a bit hard on the ears.  The album winds down with the simple and introspective "Blue Spotted Tail" with Pecknold accompanying himself on guitar and then finishes with the glorious coda of "Grown Ocean" in which the entire band changes the tenor of the album from one of resignation to one of hope if not quite redemption.

Sonically, this recording is a high point for label Sub Pop with good atmosphere and spacing around the performers.  The vinyl was especially quiet between passages and handled the dynamic shifts (no loudness wars here) within the tracks as well as between tracks.  The packaging is top-notch with a gatefold, free 320Kbps MP3 download and even a 24"x24" poster (when was the last time you got one of those in an album) along with the aforementioned 2 LPs with 3 tracks per side – probably one of the reasons the LP sounds so good.  Instruments are primarily acoustic (with a few exceptions) and sound quite natural in their presentation – continuing the recording and mastering trend seen on prior releases such as Iron & Wine's The Shepherd's Dog to release not just great performances but great recordings.

 

 

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