Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)

Three years after the release of their hugely successful debut album, Fleet Foxes are back with the follow-up. In the intervening time, the band has toured constantly, including two shows in New Zealand in early 2009. They’ve also gone through a few personnel changes, losing Nicholas Peterson and Craig Curran and adding Josh Tillman (drums, percussion, vocals), Christian Wargo (bass, vocals) and Morgan Henderson (bass, woodwinds). Although the ranks have swelled to six, Robin Pecknold remains the primary artistic force, writing all twelve songs.

The band finally got into the studio last year after a couple of misfires and it seems that the wait was worth it. Pecknold and his cohorts sound just as dedicated to folk music, both ancient and contemporary, as they did on their debut. Acoustic guitars are strummed with wild abandon along with more esoteric instruments like the hammer dulcimer, lever harp, Marxophone (whatever that is), harpsichord, Tremoloa, and, of course, Tibetan singing bowls. The songwriting and playing is steeped in late 60s and early 70s folk rock by the likes of The Byrds, CSN, America and Simon & Garfunkel, with a Beach Boys-esque harmonic sheen over a good portion of the tracks. On top of it all Robin Pecknold’s echo-drenched lead vocals soar and shimmer.

The result is stunning. Pecknold’s songwriting is sharper and more concise than on the first album. His subject matter, on tunes like Montezuma, Bedouin Dress and Lorelai is infused with nostalgia while brooding over life’s big questions. In fact, Blue Spotted Tail askes, “Why is life made only for to end?” The album’s centrepiece is the eight-minute The Shrine/An Argument, a song-suite that “describes four stages of a break-up”, according to the press clip accompanying the album. The track ends with the album’s most surprising and exhilarating moment…a free jazz sax break that sounds like elephants mating.

For sure, there are more contemplative moments, such as the pastoral title track and Someone You’d Admire, the acoustic–based tune that finds Pecknold vacillating between his inner good and evil side.

The band’s harmonies are breath-taking throughout, as are Pecknold’s vocals, although the heavy use of echo gets tired after a while. On the one tune that leaves Robin’s vocals relatively unscathed, Blue Spotted Tail, the emotional connection is much more direct, because Robin sounds like he is in the same room as the listener, instead of soaring with the eagles. The band has chosen to work with producer Phil Ek again…perhaps a change would do them good next time around.

But overall, this is a very satisfying set of songs, played, sung and arranged with a great deal of thought, care and emotion. It looks like Fleet Foxes have surpassed the expectations set up by their debut album.

Marty Duda

Click here to listen to The Plains/Bitter Dancer from Helplessness Blues