Sunday, 22 May 2011

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues (Album Review 2011)

This is the 500th post for the current incarnation of my music blog. Fitting that it is a review of a great new album. Enjoy...

Originally from Seattle but now based in Portland, American six-piece Fleet Foxes have risen to prominence since 2008. The band is unique among their contemporaries in promoting vocals as much as music as part of their multi-layered intricate folk sound. The band’s eponymous début shows this to its full potential but now the follow-up, Helplessness Blues, moves the band and their music up a notch – the songcraft, the depth of production and the vocals all feel so much more powerful. And it is a joy from start to finish.

The immediate highlights of Helplessness Blues are the albums three longest songs. The Plains/Bitter Dancer has a slow-burning choral build-up before adding guitars, the dark brooding atmosphere enhanced by a flute arrangement. The combination of vocals and instrumentation is amongst the best on the album. This is followed by the title track with another great vocal melody fuelled by powerful guitar-work. A song, at the centre of the running theme, sums up the feelings of being overwhelmed by the world and wanting to fit in, while understanding it and almost being comfortable about the situation. With two minutes to go it transforms, adding rare electric guitars to lament about a more simple life and gorgeous song writing. The third of these songs is the eight-minute odyssey The Shrine/An Argument.  The opening lyrics: “I went down among the dust and pollen; to the old stone fountain in the morning after dawn” immediately set the scene in what is a vocal tour-de-force for front man Robin Pecknold. The line “Sunlight over me no matter what I do…” is sung with such power and control – a feat not heard anywhere else on the album. Again, as the double-named title suggests, a transformation brings in crashing drums, guitars and more stunning vocals. Halfway and the song quietens into ambience and more talk of orchards and apples before a beautiful interlude is replaced by a manic squealing horn-section. An odd yet beguiling progression through a wonderful story.

Elsewhere, Helplessness Blues is filled with more quality. Sim Sala Bim is more vivid imagery and superb vocals followed by astonishing guitar-work to end. Battery Kinzie is a great pop single with echoes of Simon & Garfunkel recalling a strange dream. Likewise Lorelai is a jolly upbeat guitar-led love song brimming with lyrical brilliance: “I was old news to you then…” and “I still see your face when I try to sleep”. Only the scientifically incorrect whimsical musings of Blue Spotted Tail is a low point but even this has an engaging naïve charm. And closer Grown Ocean combines Phil Spector production with Sigur Ros ‘vocals as instruments’ perfection to create a final masterpiece. The last forty seconds of a cappella is a fitting end to a wonderful album.

Fleet Foxes consistently pull the listener further into their own unique world that, while on the surface sounds alien and grounded in folklore, is more than relevant and modern. In this ever-changing technological world, Helplessness Blues manages to remain organic and real. As a progression from the band’s début, this second album manages to take all the elements of their original, captivating sound and inject a new creative edge. And the effect is an astonishing leap forward thanks to a greater depth of song writing, engaging storytelling and superbly crafted composition. By no means flawless, this is an album of beguiling charm and intimacy that reaches near-perfection.

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