Under Review: Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

When Fleet Foxes gently materialized in 2006, their ethereal harmonies and unhurried songs were captivatingly different from the already eclectic musical offerings of that time. Though they had released their first EP a few years before, 2008 turned out to be a massive year for the Seattle folk-rock revivalists. Along with their self-titled debut came the Sun Giant EP, each containing a masterful panorama of soothing, haunting and rousing spirituals. Like so many young groups whose debut efforts are received so enthusiastically, the task of crafting another record was a thoroughly daunting one for lead singer and songwriter Robin Pecknold. Original drafts for the album were scrapped entirely, master tapes taped over, pushing the entire project back month after month. As Pecknold’s muse continued to elude him, pressures to complete the record cost him a girlfriend and forced the group to spend a lot of time recording. Those struggles have translated into Helplessness Blues, the group’s moody, spacious and expansive new album.

If Fleet Foxes was the sound of a band coming into full bloom, then Helplessness Blues is that band coming back to life after a cruel winter. Helplessness Blues doesn’t exactly spring to life, though opener “Montezuma” does provide a somberly inviting overture. The new songs don’t show off too many skills we weren’t already aware that Fleet Foxes possessed, but they make up for the lack of new tricks by continuing to perfect their style. One of Fleet Foxes hallmarks was the mid-song transition. Much more than a coda, arrangements would shift entirely for the second half of numerous songs. On Helplessness Blues, the shifts are more like movements; “The Shrine/An Argument” goes through a few of them in its sprawling running time, as does “The Plains/Bitter Dancer,” albeit on a slightly smaller scale. The longer song lengths give more time for Pecknold’s meditations, though that shouldn’t imply that the shorter numbers skimp on lyrical or musical depth.

Since Fleet Foxes’ main theme is that of hushed, delicate picking, the songs with louder arrangement inherently stand out. Not just loudness for loudness’ sake, “Battery Kinzie” and closer “Grown Ocean” are joyous excursions that boast unexpectedly diverse flourishes (like fluttering flutes on “Grown Ocean”). Another early highlight, “Bedouin Dress,” evokes the nomadic Arabian people with a violin that sounds a bit like an Egyptian mizmar. Later on, the instrumental “The Cascades” sets up for one of Helplessness Blues’ finest and most heartbreaking songs, “Lorelai.” The waltz is an update on “Norwegian Wood,” perhaps the classiest of ode to a breakup. Oddly enough, the title track is the album’s most optimistic moment, not for its certainty of the future but for its willingness to embrace the unforeseen. That wide-eyed wonder is what will keep Fleet Foxes going for many years to come. Pecknold might get bruised from the various hands he’s dealt, but he knows that those wounds will only serve to strengthen his art.

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~ by E. on May 6, 2011.

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