Back from his travels far and wide, Mike brings us his review of Fleet Foxes’ latest effort. It’s nice to have other voices here, and I hope you it gives you all something to talk about, eh?! Look forward to more guest posts from contributing writers. If you’d like to be part of Love Shack, Baby, give me a holler. You don’t need to be here in Chicago, just genuinely love music and care about who’s making it and how, xoxo
Fleet Foxes return with their second full-length album Helplessness Blues, an ornate, densely-layered folk confection bound to give a stomachache to the uninitiated. But the fans who relished the self-titled breakthrough album in 2008 will only find more cause to rejoice in this twelve-track travail through a long playing version of Middle Earth. Too hippie and earnest for the Grizzly Bear crowd, too long-winded for the Maps & Atlases contingent, Fleet Foxes have carved out a unique niche for themselves on the contemporary indie scene as the musical heirs of the precious, manufactured-complexity of Art Garfunkel.
The traditional folk complement of acoustic guitar, mandolin, bass and violin, fills out Helplessness Blues with a homey intimacy reminiscent of your favorite watering hole in the Shire. Fleet Foxes would make a great Hobbit bar band, or even a wedding band — their music champions all the traditional Hobbit values: innocence, devotion, daring to dream. “Grown Ocean” is a galloping, wide-eyed anthem of hope, “In my dream I could hardly contain it/ All my life I will wait to attain it…” Cue the warbling strings, the moony gaze over the windswept plain, the turtledove alighting on a branch. Every Fleet Foxes song could double as the soundtrack to a fantasy-epic cutaway montage.
Who can decipher the opaque mysticism of the Seattle-based band? The disconnected medley “The Shrine/An Argument” presents itself more as a riddle than a pop song. A stiff, nasally chorus announces cryptically, “Green apples hang from my tree/ They belong only to me/ Green apples hang from my green apple tree/ They belong only to (only to me)…” Quite right. Having set the record straight on the fruit issue, a moody violin grounds a frenetic saxophone outro. Powerful stuff – a saxophone hasn’t sounded this good on the end of a pop song since Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side.” But pasted at the end of the odd green apple trope, though, it comes off as an awkward misfire.
Fans of a less fantastical Fleet Foxes will enjoy the modest appeal of “Someone You’d Admire.” A quiet, reflective number that weaves sweet melodies out of real human (not Hobbitt) heartache and toil. Yes, Beavis & Butthead (or the cast of Jackass) would make winged farting noises over such delicate mewing. But the rest of us have a more refined emotional palate capable of appreciating the finer sentiments. Fleet Foxes is most defensible when they pull from the rich tradition of group-form folk balladry – from Crosby, Stills & Nash to Peter, Paul & Mary – that has proceeded them. “Someone You’d Admire” harks back to the greater compositional restraint of hits from the first album, like “Oliver James” and “He Doesn’t Know Why,” all songs that don’t disdain a hummable melody.
With so little joy to report from Helplessness Blues, dark times have indeed spread over Middle Earth (and we’re not just talking the usual Seattle cloud cover). The good news, however, is that Fleet Foxes hasn’t shed one iota of the talent or ability that made them the indie darlings of 2008. Their core-audience will once again be astonished, reading genius into every extra minute tacked onto a song, every superfluous viola flourish, every nonsensical lyric. But if the indiesphere was hoping that Fleet Foxes, Seattle’s favorite sons, would become general ambassadors of a new “Northwest” sound, it can only expect disappointment. If anything, the band has retreated further into its creative shell with the stony, hyper-mannerisms of Helplessness Blues. Think: Congratulations for nitrous enthusiasts. Another album like this and Fleet Foxes will be exiled to the New Age circuit.