Posted on May 4th, 2011 (1:00 pm) by Joe D. Michon-Huneau

There’s something signature about Fleet Foxes’ sound, something unmistakably them, something classic. Fleet Foxes have cut themselves a distinct little niche within an already thoroughly explored genre, and for the most part, they do it very, very well. On Helplessness Blues, they don’t readily trek far from their rather woodsy territory. In fact, if you made yourself a Fleet Foxes playlist from their as-of-now short but sweet discography and set it to “random”, it’d be difficult for a new listener to differentiate between albums. I’m certainly not complaining when I say this. We’re really glad they’re still treading the same ground. We almost wouldn’t have it any other way. You see, we have a crush on that particular sound.

On their self-titled debut, Fleet Foxes wrote and sung and played beautifully, so much so that they earned top ten positions in various music ‘zine giants’ Album of the Year lists. It absolutely deserved the praise it was given; even Pitchfork liked it (“He likes it! Hey Mikey!”). But upon the release of the excellent first single for which Helplessness Blues was named, the question remained whether or not the new album would live up to its predecessor. Rest assured, I’m here to tell you that it has. I mean, shit, what did you expect? Even Sun Giant is better than most EPs I’ve heard.

Already a supergroup of sorts, Fleet Foxes recently lassoed multi-instrumentalist Morgan Henderson into their official lineup—a seemingly strange choice seeing as Henderson’s résumé is comprised mostly of bass duty for Seattle post-hardcore acts The Blood Brothers and Past Lives. Whatever the history, the addition must be working well as the final product is stunning, to say the least.

Main songwriter Robin Pecknold has been doing a lot of hard thinking lately. It was even rumored that the intensity with which he plunged into the creation of Helplessness Blues was both the breaking and returning point for his current relationship. Lyrically, he’s asking big questions of himself and of his place in the universe as he grows older and more self-aware, which I won’t ruin for you by misquoting out of context. In a completely unrelated review of David Foster Wallace’s book of essays Consider the Lobster, Ashley Gauthier of the Free Lance-Star said of Wallace that he “doesn’t pretend to have any answers, but at least he knows what the questions are.” That same sentiment I’d like to extend to Pecknold. He’s certainly digging for gold, but he’s perhaps too humble or modest to admit he’s already standing on the proper X.

Starting slow and soft, with an excess of incredible harmony awash with reverb and expertly styled acoustic fingerpicking, “Montezuma” is just a teaser for the rest of the album to come. It’s a good song to delve into Pecknold & co.’s latest world and an easy bridge to cross from the end of their last album into this one. But the album really starts to take off in the next two songs, the upbeat “Bedouin Dress” and the ever-tactful “Sim Sala Bim”, which explodes into a folk frenzy of acoustic guitar halfway through. “Battery Kinzie” creates a bit of a lull in the excitement, but is by no means a disappointing song. In comparison with the remainder of the album, however, it is a bit tedious to sit through while waiting for the incredible one-two punch of “The Plains / Bitter Dancer” and the previously mentioned title track. And that’s just the first half of the album. Throughout the rest, whether it’s the waltzy “Lorelai”, the all-too-brief “Someone You’d Admire”, or the simply beautiful “Blue Spotted Tail”, Fleet Foxes are continuously reaching nearer and nearer the top of their game.

The only misstep on the album makes its gangly intrusion during what otherwise could’ve easily been deemed the best song on the album. Pecknold’s voice emotes achingly in the beginning verses of “The Shrine / An Argument”, and the harmonies swell to haunting proportions, their quintessential church hall reverb making its eerie presence known. Then three mid-song musical plot twists send the song first into a pulsing lament, then into what seems to be a piano and organ-infused daydream before strings sweep our befuddled ears into the “Argument” portion of the song. Here, where it would’ve been fine to let the string arrangement whisper us to sleep, the Foxes surprise their listeners with a horrible woodwind battle between a low voiced bassoon (perhaps?) and a squeaky clarinet or two in a cacophonous mess that almost ruins the song for me. Now, believe me, I get it--it’s an argument and it’s not supposed to sound good. You know, like jazz or whatever. But I feel like they could’ve accomplished this through other means. It’s great that Fleet Foxes are experimenting, but Henderson, if this was your doing, you’re treading thin ice, buddy. I’m sure some people will love this obtrusive segment and will want to debate me on this, and they’ve every right to do so; some people just love atonal, out-of-place noise. Regardless, there’s a very nice resolve once this swanky argument fades, and I believe this is what Pecknold and his comrades want to draw your attention toward—the calm after the storm that only they know the ingredients of and inspiration for.

Through and through, Fleet Foxes have proved with their second full-length that they have the songwriting capacity to compete with not only other indie-folk greats but with their hard-to-top previous recordings as well. There’s certainly no sophomore slump here.

Track List:

1. Montezuma
2. Bedouin Dress
3. Sim Sala Bim
4. Battery Kinzie
5. The Plains/Bitter Dancer
6. Helplessness Blues
7. The Cascades
8. Lorelai
9. Someone You'd Admire
10. The Shrine/An Argument
11. Blue-Spotted Tail
12. Grown Ocean

Purchase at: Amazon | eMusic

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