Fleet Foxes are a five-piece Seattle-based band signed to Sub Pop and Bella Union. The band came ...
Listening to Helplessness Blues, it’s obvious the band is still content with wandering through metaphorical fields (not too many literal fields in Seattle proper). This begs the question: did Fleet Foxes pull a Fleet Foxes? Well, of course. Despite an album title that suggests wrist-slitting misery, the band does not have a whole lot to be blue about. Blues is a fine addition to the ever-growing canon of modern day storytelling. Neither a radical departure nor a redundant continuation of Fleet Foxes, it exists somewhere full of pretty things that make you feel without telling you what to think. The [insert agreeable adjective] harmonies are still tight and their lyrics still imagine a sort of urban wilderness man’s observations as he passes through life. To quote singer Robin Pecknold: “[Blues ponders] the struggle between who you are and who you want to be or who you want to end up, and how sometimes you are the only thing getting in the way of that.” Ah yes, the twenty-something artist’s existential crisis. Pecknold approaches this theme with a lot more poetic savvy than his peers; he’s a strong lyricist who isn’t afraid to reference magic (“Sim Sala Bim”) or fictional Irish villages (“The Shrine / An Argument”) at the risk of seeming affected. Perhaps Fleet Foxes’ greatest contribution to the genre is their ability to transport listeners—most of whom have never dwelled solo in the mountains for any period of time—to an attractive version of ‘backwoods,’ where grit is applied with the delicate touch of someone who doesn’t actually have dirt under his nails.
What keeps the band on the acceptable side of pretentious is that Helplessness Blues is full of good songs. Ask yourself this: if the album was penned by someone possessing little to no aptitude for songwriting but happened to be a Real-Life Mountain Man, would his efforts be celebrated solely based on circumstance and—ugh—authenticity? I’ve used this term liberally over the years of writing music reviews and sometimes even I hate myself; however, calling something ‘authentic’ for authenticity’s-sake is just as terrible as calling something ‘inauthentic’ because its creator doesn’t share the same lifestyle as his creative influences (for the record, Fleet Foxes list Neil Young, Ennio Morricone and the Zombies amongst their many, diverse influences). Regardless of your personal opinion on authenticity, it’s hard to deny the band’s gift for song composition, as evidenced by the superb, 8-minute “The Shrine / An Argument.” What begins fairly innocuous—Pecknold’s clear, haunting vocals over simple guitar picking—builds momentum around the 2:30 mark where it eventually climaxes in a clatter of percussion and mandolin (?); eardrums are treated to a brief intermission, but the relief is short-lived as the song ends with a psychedelic battery of mangled saxophone, perhaps the oddest contribution because it works. Watch the impressive music video for the track, featuring animation by Pecknold’s brother, Sean:
Helplessness Blues was released in May of 2011 (and the answer to your unspoken question is ‘yes,’ this review is awkwardly belated). Currently, the band has no upcoming tour dates, but tune into their official website / Facebook for the latest info.