Album review: Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues” (Sub Pop)

May 12, 2011

As noted several times in recent weeks (thank you, Feelies, Damon Albarn, TV on the Radio, and Radiohead), the music world is in the midst of a banner season for lulling, introspective, slow-build winners. And Seattle folk-rockers Fleet Foxes have not only given us another; it might be the most lulling, introspective, and slowest of them all.

Having proven the impressive grandeur of their self-described “baroque harmonic pop jams” with their self-titled debut in 2008, the five beard-rockers don’t alter theirformula much the second time around… except to s-l-o-w t-h-i-n-g-s w-a-y d-o-w-n, and to add a healthy dollop of British Isles psychedelic folk (Roy Harper, trippier Fairport Convention, and the Incredible String Band) to the slightly more upbeat and mostly American influences of the last excursion (post-“Pet Sounds” Beach Boys, and of course Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young).

Main man Robin Pecknold also has cited Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” as an inspiration, though not so much in terms of that classic’s epic vocal performance—Fleet Foxes are all about layered harmonies, with little emphasis on any one singer’s virtuosity, much less his skills as an improviser. Nor is he talking about cosmic lyrical philosophizing—though Fleet Foxes come close at times, especially on the most Morrison-like track, “The Plains/Bitter Dancer,” with lines such as, “Daylight sleeper Bloody reaper/You took a room and you settled in… Midnight feeder/Beggar, pleader/I should have known one day you would come”).

Rather, Pecknold and his bandmates were aiming for a particular and cohesive sound: a deceptively casual, homespun perfection that belies the painstaking craftsmanship of the harmonies, melodies, and production. And they succeed brilliantly.

Hasn’t all of this been done many times before? Obviously. “I was old news to you then/Old news to you then,” the group sings in “Lorelai.” It’s a heartbreakingly beautiful ballad of love lost, but it could just as well be a defiant response to skeptics, because if there’s nothing new here, Fleet Foxes nonetheless make you feel as if you’ve never heard anything like this before.

On the four-star scale: 3.5 STARS

STILL IN HEAVY ROTATION

Beastie Boys, “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two” (Capitol)

tUnE-yArDs, “WHOKILL” (4AD)

Poly Styrene, “Generation Indigo” (Future Noise)

Gorillaz, “The Fall” (Virgin)

Clive Tanaka, “Jet Set Siempre No. 1”

The Feelies, “Here Before” (Bar None)

TV on the Radio, “Nine Types of Light” (Interscope)

Lykke Li, “Wounded Rhymes” (Atlantic)

Screeching Weasel, “First World Manifesto” (Fat Wreck Chords)

Lupe Fiasco, “Lasers” (Atlantic)

Lucinda Williams, “Blessed” (Lost Highway)

Radiohead, “The King of Limbs” (self-released)

Drive-By Truckers, “Go-Go Boots” (ATO)

North Mississippi Allstars, “Keys to the Kingdom” (Songs of the South)

Smith Westerns, “Dye It Blonde” (Fat Possum)

The Decemberists, “The King Is Dead” (Capitol)