Album: Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues (Bella Union)
With Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes triumphantly deliver on the promise of their popular debut, the album that helped establish folk-rock once again as a formidable commercial force rather than just a fringe interest.
What's most impressive about this follow-up is the way that the group manage to make giant strides creatively without jettisoning their core sound. Pick virtually any few bars at random, and it's immediately obvious that this is Fleet Foxes: those chiming guitars, Robin Pecknold's open, fulsome vocals, the ringing multi-part harmonies – all are strikingly distinctive, even in a genre where acoustic guitars and harmonies are staple elements. There's a hearty honesty about the harmonies, for instance, that sets them apart from famous West Coast forebears such as The Byrds, Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills & Nash. The only moments where an unsuspecting listener might be shocked are those that close "The Shrine/An Argument", when a mad scrabble of free-jazz sax shatters the homely atmosphere, like an angry interloper at an Anglican service.
The religious reference is apposite: at times, the group's harmonies resemble cloistered monks at prayer; and their new-found taste for multi-sectioned songs recalls the manner of classical choral works as much as it does The Incredible String Band. But within the more recognisable elements are excursions into newer territory. "Lorelai" is a galumphing waltz with Caribbean-sounding guitar arpeggios and a twinkle of glockenspiel, while "Bedouin Dress" harnesses the gentle thrumming of mandolin to an Arabic-flavoured violin; and elsewhere, outré antique instruments such as the Marxophone are employed to lend enigmatic flourishes to individual songs.
But the most significant change from their debut is Robin Pecknold's maturity as a songwriter. He's left behind his more gnomic locutions in favour of a straight-talking clarity, the better to convey a worldview steeped in the notions of respect, responsibility and communality often abandoned in pop's relentless pursuit of the indulgent, the egotistical, and the ephemeral. It's most directly expressed in the title-track, where Pecknold looks back with embarrassment at the beliefs of his youth, when he fancied himself something special, unique as a snowflake. Now, however, "after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery, sowing something behind me – but I don't know what that will be". Clearly, neither Reagan nor two generations of Bush has managed to wipe out the idealism of hippie fellowship.
The attitude is further extended in lines such as "the borrower's debt is the only regret of my youth" and "oh man, what I used to be!", from "Bedouin Dress" and "Montezuma" respectively, paired ruminations on family heritage and duty; while "The Plains/Bitter Dancer" explores the kind of ecological concerns that so fascinated Midlake on The Courage Of Others. It may be just the sunshine warming one's spirit, but with such a spirited clarion as Helplessness Blues leading the way, can a Summer of Love be far behind?
DOWNLOAD THIS Montezuma; Bedouin Dress; Helplessness Blues; The Plains/Bitter Dancer; The Shrine/An Argument
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