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Album Review: Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

posted on May.02, 2011

Fleet Foxes
“Helplessness Blues”Fleet Foxes
Release Number: 2nd
Hailing From: Seattle, Washington
Genre: Indie Folk
Label: SubPop

Way back in 2008, the Fleet Foxes released their self-titled debut album. They were a band who, at the time, had only two EPs to their name. However, those EPs received some critical praise. Yet it was nothing compared to the attention that they would receive for their debut album. The debut album and the 2008 Sun Giant EP were declared the best album(s) of 2008 by Pitchfork. With such a history of success, their 2nd album, Helplessness Blues, could have gone one of two ways. The high expectations could have crushed the Fleet Foxes’ new effort or it could have been absolutely amazing.

10/10

The Fleet Foxes are standing tall and should serve as an example of how to work under pressure of extremely high expectations. They took their time, wrote and recorded the album at their own pace, and they produced a wonderful album.

The album starts off with the slower and more melodious “Montezuma.” While this album is definitely not a rehash of their debut, they haven’t changed their style. The balance of old and new is apparent most on Montezuma as well as the few other tracks that harken back to their previous releases. It features a light guitar and the grand vocal harmonization that we have all come to know and love from the Fleet Foxes. However, the song also represents what has changed. The band sounds just a touch more energetic and the production is much cleaner and noticeable (but not overdone).

Next comes “Bedouin Dress” which is definitely a more energetic and happier effort. This track is also nearly has less harmonization and back-up vocals. In fact, this entire album’s vocal effort is a bit more of a solo endeavor with the cleaner instrumentation backing and complementing it. However, the harmonies are far from absent. They are worked in at appropriate times and sound neither underused nor over-utilized.

“Sim Sala Bim” is a wonderful song in which the lyrics are as beautiful as the music. It starts off by painting a wonderful picture of the environment and some characterization. Pecknold sweetly sings, “He was so kind, such a gentleman tied to the oceanside / Lighting a match on the suitcase’s latch in the fading of night /Ruffle the fur of the collie ‘neath the table /Ran out the door through the dark / Carved out his initials in the bark.” Then the music begins to crescendo as the imagery becomes more forceful and the action seems to start, “Then the Earth shook, that was all that it took for the dream to break / All the loose ends would surround me again in the shape of your face / What makes me love you despite the reservations? / What do I see in your eyes / Besides my reflection hanging high? / Are you off somewhere reciting incantations? / Sim sala bim on your tongue / Carving off the hair of someone’s young.” Then the song ends with the soft, “Remember when you had me cut your hair? / Call me Delilah then I wouldn’t care.” A biblical reference, a hint of necessary betrayal, and it leads to a long outro.

The opening percussion of “Battery Kinzie” call the listener to attention. Here, the album really beings to pick up as the slow build of the first half of the album become truly noticeable and even more subtle alterations to the Fleet Foxes style. The increased emphasis on percussion is something that has been rarely (if ever) seen from the Fleet Foxes and it adds another dimension to their sound.

“The Plains / Bitter Dancer” breaks up the percussive songs by hitting the listener with a beautiful vocal based song. It begins with a long instrumental intro then the harmonized vocals (reminiscent of their debut). Most of the instrumentation consists some woodwinds, some acoustic, and a little light percussion with interludes that are technically a cappella, but the harmonies make it sound populated. Then what was to this point a rather minimalist song, suddenly breaks into a lush and energetic final minute and half, which makes it the perfect lead-in to the title track.

“Helplessness Blues,” the title track and centerpiece of the album, starts with a soft acoustic guitar and Pecknold soft, but bold, and slowly building voice. Then he breaks into strong, energetic performance, with distinct guitars and clear vocals. This is another point, where the listener should notice the lyrics. The Fleet Foxes have always been lyrically strong. Their debut was marked with wonderfully painted pictures full of natural imagery. While this albums certainly contains that, many of the lyrics are more grounded. The opening, “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,” is wonderfully descriptive and features a individual who might rather not be so unique or lonely and would rather be involved in something bigger. However, he/she simply can’t, as Pecknold continues, “But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be / I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see.” The next part establishes that this person is on a journey for meaning but can’t seem to settle into a collective identity: “What’s my name, what’s my station, oh, just tell me what I should do / I don’t need to be kind to the armies of night that would do such injustice to you / Or bow down and be grateful and say ‘sure, take all that you see’ To the men who move only in dimly-lit halls and determine my future for me.” Despite, the speaker’s desire to serve a greater purpose, he cannot bring himself to give up his individuality as Pecknold sings, “What good is it to sing helplessness blues, why should I wait for anyone else? / And I know, I know you will keep me on the shelf.” He/she realizes that serving a larger purpose means that he/she will be pushed to the margins and relegated to an unimportant, passive role. The final part of the song stresses individual ownership. The speaker wants to own something himself or herself and if he.she could do that, then they would have no problem putting in the work necessary because it would be such an ideal situation full of happiness. “If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m raw / If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore / And you would wait tables and soon run the store / Gold hair in the sunlight, my light in the dawn / If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore / If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore.” Finally, the song ends on an enigmatic and abrupt, “Someday I’ll be like the man on the screen,” which solidifies the goals and places it as an ideal. The song then fades out with soft instrumentation.

“The Cascades” is a beautiful two minute instrumentation interlude that focuses mostly on plucked, high, guitars. It is a simple song, but as will everything “simple” the Fleet Foxes do, there is another layer beneath it and a build. Though relatively few instruments are involved, they come together to create a wonderful song. The sudden swells that populate this song should catch the attention of listeners.

This brings us to “Lorelai.” Here the band combines a very percussive base with vocal harmonies and light vocal harmonies with Pecknold emerging from the beautiful background. This song is the closest track to the self-titled on this album. Yet this too is infused with a shot of refreshing energy and percussion. Next comes “Someone You’d Admire” is a relatively minimalist song that prominently features Pecknold’s vocals, whose slight whine on high notes is more noticeable. It is a short song, but it is a wonderful complement to the next song.
The 8 minute “Shrine / An Argument” definitely has the most folky twang and influence on this album, at least in the beginning. The first part of the song features a few powerful outbursts from Pecknold, something that has never been seen on a Fleet Foxes album. Those parts are contrasted with a swell of light instrumentation and some harmonies. Then around 2 minutes, “An Argument” starts the second part of the song is much more powerful instrumentally and distinct. Once again, there is a great percussive base but there is little surrounding it during the verses. It is certainly much more musically akin to an argument. The third part of the song is a slow, near depressing, section with a lyric focus on the first person and possession, which suggests loneliness. The end of the song is populated with cacophonous brass, which is certainly something new for the generally melodious Fleet Foxes.

What follows is “Blue Spotted Tail” which is easily, the most musically simple song on the album. This song was released quite a while ago. I’ve had a version of it performed for 6 Music Glastonbury Hub Session since 2009. I’ve always loved this song so I was very excited to see it on the track-listing. This version is reworked at bit, the melody is basically the same, but the lyrics are little different. It’s a rather contemplative song that questions life, the meaning of personal decisions, and the futility of life.

“Blue Spotted Tail” is the perfect foil and lead in for the perfect closer. “Grown Ocean” is very lush song, both instrumentally and vocally. It features some prominent percussion, strong guitars, and harmonies. It is quite the happy song that evokes good memories, dreams of the future, and the accomplishment of those dreams. The song is hopeful and it speaks about gaining the courage to actually do something. At the end, it fades into an a cappella, “Wide-eyed walker, don’t betray me / I will wake one day, don’t delay me / Wide-eyed leaver, always going.” It does hang a bit, but that makes it all the more powerful.

The Fleet Foxes wanted to release an album back in 2009 but they scrapped the songs they made in those sessions, to their own financial detriment. Then the band members toured with other projects for a year. However, the effort that went into their album is not only evident in the product, but in the personal costs the band incurred. Robin Pecknold stated that his work on the album caused him to split with his girlfriend of five years, though, apparently now that it’s finished, they’re working it out. She supposedly now believes that the product was worth the time that Pecknold put into it.

I’d be inclined to agree. Even with the financial and personal costs of the album the final product is entirely worth it. The band didn’t set out to create a technically perfect album. Pecknold said he wanted to do the, “vocal takes in one go, so even if there are fuck-ups, I want them to be on there. I want there to be guitar mistakes. I want there to be not totally flawless vocals. I want to record it and have that kind of cohesive sound. Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, to me, is the best-sounding album because it sounds like there were only six hours in the universe for that album to be recorded in. So I want it to have that feeling.” The band couldn’t go through with their plan to record so quickly, though, reportedly, the vocals were recorded in one take. However, despite their original intention, the band has created a perfect album. Perfect is a word I have never used to describe an album until this point, but it is the best word to describe Helplessness Blues.

- Matthew Jannetti, Music Director


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