Coming up with one’s ten best albums of the year is tough. I’ve done more than that, but narrowing a list to ten is a much more difficult task than simply naming all the albums you bought in a year. Also, I have the terrible habit of proclaiming albums to be the year’s best long before I should. Then, there are all the albums that simply have not been given the time they deserve.
That said, I have narrowed my list to nine. All I need is one more, but the list that follows is what I have left to consider. Sure, I might miss a few when it’s all said and done, but these are albums I’m still considering for one spot. Feel free to comment on what’s here and what isn’t. Keep in mind that I already chose nine to make the final cut. I just need one more…
The Albums I Haven’t Listened to Enough Even Though I’ve Had Them for Awhile: So, I’ve had some of these records almost since they were first released this year, but for whatever reason, I just haven’t had time to give them a proper listen. All of the albums in this group deserve serious consideration as I’ve spent some time over the past couple of weeks trying to get reacquainted.
Okkervil River – I Am Very Far
As I was considering my favorite tracks of the year, I rediscovered “Wake and Be Fine” on another list of top songs. It made me want to rediscover this album just to make sure I didn’t overlook it. I had. While the narratives and poetic flourishes Will Sheff normally demonstrates in his songwriting is somewhat subdued in order to make room for more hooks, the production and instrumental dynamics more than make up for it.
Joan of Arc – Life Like
Honestly, I could write something up that just tells you all I know and/or think about previous JoA records prior to this one and it might be somehow accurate in describing this record. However, I won’t tell you anything. Just know that it’s long overdue a sit-and-git. Maybe I’ll pour a beer also deserving my attention. Either way, I remember loving portions of it, but I never listened to it and it landed on the island of forgotten LP’s.
BOAT – Dress Like Your Idols
The poor man’s Yuck, possibly, deserves more listens. I’ve actually been playing the shit out of it lately, giving it a hard look for the final slot in my list. It’s loaded with all kinds of nods to my heroes and theirs (apparently). The aesthetic reminds me tons of the sort of nineties retro indie that The Soft Pack and Surfer Blood play. It’s good stuff but nothing earth-shattering.
Mogwai – Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
What a massively great album this is. Why isn’t it in my top-10 already? I really haven’t listened to it enough to make that decision. Maybe I’d hear that one bit that put it over the edge or make it unworthy of top-10 status. I don’t know. I blame the fact that Sub Pop’s digital download system didn’t work and I never bothered to follow up.
Low – C’mon
I loved this album a lot from the beginning, but I worried that I wasn’t giving it enough distance. Then, I gave it too much distance and nearly forgot. It seemed too perfect of an album to be Low’s and maybe I was missing something. That’s not saying Low doesn’t make great albums. I’m just surprised a Low album could contain so many memorable songs. Albums are their thing, not singles.
The Albums that I, for Whatever Reason, Did Not Purchase This Year: I know these bands are good. I’ve read and heard enough to know that these albums should be considered. Why I still haven’t purchased them is unknown to me. Luckily, there’s Spotify. I’ve been trying to catch up on some material I missed over the year. More than likely, I will own all of these albums by February. Still, they sit collectively just outside my top-10.
War on Drugs – Slave Ambient
I don’t know how one determines Spotify statistics, but I’m sure I’ve played this album more than all others over the past month while at my computer. For whatever reason, I didn’t buy this album, nor did I go see them when they came to town. It makes no sense and this record is pretty good.
Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo
See above, aside from the not seeing him even though he was in town, because he was not in town this year. I loved his set at Pitchfork last year and loved whichever record I do own. The crime of not owning this record will be rectified soon enough.
Thurston Moore – Demolished Thoughts
I own the other two Moore solo efforts plus a handful of weird records he’s done over the years. I have been loving anything Beck produces as of late – maybe my producer of the year. I am a Sonic Youth fan of like 20 years. So, why don’t I own this record? I have no idea. Now, I’m seeing it pop up on lists and I’m wondering what I’ve missed. Better give it another listen on Spotify.
I Saw These Guys and Was Impressed, So Their Albums Deserve Another Look: The following two acts were among those I saw play live. Somehow, I don’t own either album they were supporting. Upon considering the shows I’ve seen this year, that was an egregious oversight on my part. I’ll rectify it at least by giving them props where props is due.
Bill Callahan – Apocalypse
I made sure to see Callahan while in DC earlier this year, but I didn’t buy the record. Even his track “America” made my top tracks list. It’s a crime that I don’t yet own this record.
Jay-Z/Kanye West – Watch the Throne
Going to see Jay-Z and Kanye West forced me to play this album a ton on Spotify as a way to prep myself. Typically, I don’t like hip-hop records because they are single-heavy and loaded with filler. This album was different as it was complete from beginning to end. So, it deserves some consideration.
The Bands I’m Just Not Sure About at this Juncture: For various reasons, a few bands fell into this category. Some I loved right away, but I don’t know that it’s a long-lasting love, like for life kind of love. These albums still deserve some consideration, though.
Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
At one point, I was ready to name this “album of the year”, but something made me reconsider. It may have been seeing so many bros in the Fleet Foxes camp or my general distaste for hippies. I don’t know. It’s still very, very good. I’m just not ready to commit to including it in the top-10, yet.
Beirut – The Rip Tide
This might be the most complete and realized album of Beirut’s string of excellent albums, but I don’t know that it qualifies this year. In year’s past when I’ve had a hard time thinking of ten albums I like, it would have held down a seven spot. However, I have found an embarrassment of riches in this year’s crop. Beirut’s record is good, but it might not be top-10 good.
Destroyer – Kaputt
This was another album I was ready to crown early in the year, but it seems its eighties aesthetic finally rubbed me the wrong way. Bejar writes a pretty awesome song and somehow harnessed bad Casios to sound cool and even contemporary, but I lost my patience for this record over time. Then, I saw it make a few lists of people I respect, causing me to pause for a moment. Should I reconsider Kaputt?
WU LYF – Go Tell Fire to the Mountain
This album popped up on my radar since its June release or sometime shortly before that thanks in large part to their underground marketing schemes online. It’s big, epic, and incoherent in ways I’ve never heard before. That usually means that it goes directly to my top-10 list, but this year’s list is loaded and I only just laid my hands on this record, maybe six months after its release. So, it may still take time to decide on this one.
Bright Eyes – The People’s Key
Bright Eyes has gone down hill, but this album grew on me for a while, especially after seeing the band on its final trip across the country. Also, it’s been receiving some recognition, making me think that I need to revisit. Of all these records, it may have the longest shot, but it’s still a worthwhile album.
Albums by Locals That Were Really Good and Maybe Could Use a Bump from the Coalition: I don’t often hear local releases that
Ptarmigan – The Forest Darling
I said it back in May and I’ll say it again, Ptarmigan put out a great record that stands out locally or beyond. Read what I thought here and I’ll let that stand on its own.
Dubb Nubb – Sunrise Sleepeyed
It’s hard to believe sometimes that Dubb Nubb are so young as their songs demonstrate a wisdom well beyond their years. On top of that, they have an infectious sound that’s hard not to notice. I’m looking forward to seeing them play again at True/False in 2012.
Jerusalem & the Starbaskets – Dost
Dost is getting some good press and deservedly so. Lo-fi and blues revivalism with a touch of country seem to be coming along at just the right time. The band is touring extensively, but I have to believe that their one big opening gig from breaking. People eat this shit up. I do.
That’s not even the final list. As mentioned before, I have nine other albums I love more than these, but I felt they all deserved some mention and the benefit of 100 page views. Which one would you pick to add to my top-10? Did any of these make your list? Comment freely. My top-10 will hit eventually. There will probably be something similar for beer as well.
I don’t always do lists for best song, but I’ve paid particular attention to a few that have drilled holes into my brain and set up permanent residence. Most are the regulars but some might surprise. Also, I’m ranking art, y’all.
1. “Senator” – Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks – This, unsurprisingly is a sign of things to come, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why no one is on this bandwagon. Just listen to the song.
2. “Another State” – Dee Bird – Here’s a local song that I haven’t been able to get out of my head all year. It’s simple, lovely, and connected to this past summer’s visit from the cicadas. One-half of the twindie duo Dubb Nubb creates easily my favorite local track in years.
3. “Rubber” – Yuck - Shoegazing, drugged, grungy, feedback-riddled, slacker rock just makes me feel 18 again. Yuck are great nineties revivalists that have captured the decade of my youth and for that, I am eternally grateful. BTW, the video is NSFW. Also considered “The Wall”
4. “Gangsta” – Tune-Yards – Tune-Yards has masterfully figured out how to make dance-able indie rock, utilizing big beats, emo vocals, and the essential loud-quiet-loud dynamic. Although I came into possession of this album late, the songs have been running in my head all year. “Gangsta” is a standout. Also considered: “Bizness”
5. “Michael Jackson” – Das Racist – I like humor and weirdness in my hip-hop. I also like a hook. “Michael Jackson” has it all. After 3 hours of Jay-Z and Kanye West, all I could hear in my head was this track.
6. “Future Crimes” – Wild Flag – This song is just so full of angst and urgency. It makes me uncomfortable in my skin. It makes me want to dance. For me, this is the highlight of one of the year’s best albums. Also considered: “Romance”
7. “Mother” – Wye Oak (cover) – This one was from the A.V. Club’s Undercover series where bands passing through would record a song from a list of suggestions. Wye Oak eventually released this one as well as their first Undercover appearance playing a Kinks song. Also considered: “Holy Holy”
8. “Go Outside” – Cults – For my money, this was the song of the summer. Isn’t going outside all we want to do when it’s so nice out and we have to sit inside working all day?
9. “Ni**as in Paris” – Jay-Z/Kanye West – This is a pretty wicked song that the duo played like three times to close out their show in Kansas City. There’s also the perfectly timed and placed sample from Blades of Glory. (NSFW) Also considered “Otis”
10. “Helplessness Blues” – Fleet Foxes – Epic and sprawling, the title track from this year’s Fleet Foxes release all of that and a bag of granola. The sentiment is a bit sappy, but as with most FF tracks, it’s all in the vocal performances. This album faded for me down the stretch, but this track stood strong.
11. “Shell Games” – Bright Eyes – It’s been a long while since I would have ranked a Bright Eyes song so high on a year-end list. The album is really uneven, but when Conor Oberst gets a song right, he really gets it right. The song’s so upbeat for a Bright Eyes track that it’s almost a pop crossover hit.
12. “Ice Cream” – Battles – I can stand Battles in small doses, but those doses are pretty incredible. This song is so bizarre that it appeals to that teenage, indie geek inside me. (NSFW)
13. “Video Games” – Lana Del Ray – OK. Let’s ignore all the hype and debate over her authenticity. This song took the world – indie and otherwise – by storm this year. It’s haunting and beautiful with a highly contemporary narrative. Yes, I’ve fallen for it as well. I probably won’t buy the album, but I’ll listen to this song whenever possible.
14. “America!” – Bill Callahan – I got to see Bill Callahan this summer in Washington, D.C. and this song stuck out. For some reason, I haven’t picked up this record. That may have to be rectified in the coming weeks.
15. “Perth” Bon Iver – Justin Vernon outgrew his cabin in the woods with this one. I mean, there are actual electric guitars in there. Some of his latest effort strayed from the cabin fever he spread across the land his first time out, but even with some electric guitars this track shows Vernon at his atmospheric best.
16. “My Mistakes” – Eleanor Friedberger – This song should describe the conversation I had with Eleanor Friedberger . Nonetheless, this song translates well live, but it doesn’t have to as it’s just a great rock song.
17. “Wake and Be Fine” – Okkervil River – Somehow, I’ve forgotten about this album over the course of the year. Luckily, I remember being pretty excited for its release when this video was released. The big sound played well with the video’s cinematography.
18. “Try to Sleep” – Low – Low really hit it out of the park with this year’s release. “Try to Sleep” was probably the closest they’ll ever come to a hit. It’s sleepy and melodic, much more upbeat than their usual shtick. Also considered “Witches”
19. “For the One” – Waters – Port O’Brien broke up and another narrative was born when Waters was thought up. “For the One” is what Port O’Brien sounded like had they wanted to rock. The Waters album as a whole does not always deliver, but the first single does.
20. “Santa Fe” – Beirut – For several albums, I’ve been curious what Beirut would sound like when not emulating the music and culture of wherever his muse was residing at the time. “Santa Fe” is that song.
As always, what did I forget? What are you favorite songs of 2011?
For those of you who read this blog a lot, you know that I have a certain affinity for the nineties. It was the decade I attended high school, fell in love for the first time, graduated college, and started a career. So, a lot happened durning those years, making them rather significant for me. And the whole time, music was playing.
One thing I’ve noticed in the indie music scene is the resurgence of anything retro, especially nineties sensibilities and aesthetics. This agrees with me and my tastes. So, to start out the month of lists, I will begin with a list of those responsible for this nineties revivalism.
10. Fleet Foxes – Hippies were big in the nineties. The Grateful Dead were still a huge draw as was up-and-coming Phish. Blind Melon and Spin Doctors broke through at various points. Half of my friends were hippies. I played hacky-sack between classes now and again. Also, grunge label Sub Pop was beginning to turn into a folk label, well, not completely. Still, a band like Fleet Foxes would have done very well in those days.
9. Those who promote session beers - I had to work in a beer angle, but this is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. My first craft beers (or any kind of beer for that matter) was consumed in the nineties. I remember Sam Adams and Pet’s Wicked Ale being the most accessible of the craft beers. There were even a few brew pubs popping up. One thing all these breweries had in common was that they pretty stuck to style and rarely shot for extreme IBU’s or ABV. This is basically what the Session Beer Project is all about these days. So, I tip my nineties era white hat to Lew Bryson and his minions for keeping an eye on tradition as we move forward with craft beer or something like that.
8. Every band of my youth that has to reunite - Every time I think this trend will en, another band announces a tour and/or release. This time, it’s the Promise Ring shortly after Archers of Loaf’s run. This is after recent reunions for Guided By Voices, Sebadoh, The Breeders (again), Pixies (multiple times), Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Pavement, etc. The nineties keep coming back through these bands that shaped the decade. Now, I’m waiting to see who else decides to reunite and take another run at it or even who’s left. Afghan Whigs? Sonic Youth (assuming they’ve played their last gig)?
7. Flannel - I actually searched out and purchased a flannel shirt for the first time in probably 17 years. The other night, Kanye West wore a flannel around his waste. The all-purpose, workman’s standby-turned-grunge-uniform is chic again. I always liked the comfort and warmth such shirts provided. Why shouldn’t they come back?
6. The Nevermind memorial parade – I too participated in this bit of nostalgia during Nevermind‘s 20th anniversary. While the merits of the album’s musical quality can be debated, it is hard to ignore the cultural impact it had, even beyond Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, and grunge. The efforts to remember Nevermind and consume it made me feel like it was 1991 all over again… or maybe more like 1992.
5. Shoegazers – M83, Yuck, Atlas Sound/Deerhunter, Wavves, and many more young bands I’m forgetting may not be straight-up shoegazers, but they all contain certain elements of what My Bloody Valentine made somewhat famous 20 years ago. Veterans Yo La Tengo, Mogwai, and Ride have also maintained a presence in 2011 along with their shoegaze leanings. As I get older, I see elements including sampled drones, feedback, loops, unintelligible vocals, and just beautiful noise coming from indie circles. MBV’s legacy is that every band sounds like them on at least one track per album.
4. Lo-fi – Unbelievably, many bands have somehow been able to attain the sonic heights of shoegaze while simultaneously maintaining a lo-fi aesthetic/ethic. I blame shitgaze and the return of the original Guided By Voice lineup. Still, the warmth provided by some tape hiss and feedback take me back to my lazy days in college. Thank you, Times New Viking and other lo-fi revivalists. Your screwed up recordings make me smile at the thought of audiophiles throwing fits at you leaving their expensive speakers ineffective and pointless. That and you sound great on vinyl.
3. Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks – I remember when all the old hardcore kids and eighties indie rockers would come back around in the nineties, making me wish I was old enough to have both seen them in their prime and as matured, fully-developed artists. Malk provides this for me today. And he hasn’t really changed much since his nineties hay-day.
2. Wild Flag – Besides smart-ass, white boy indie rock, the nineties were known for the riot grrrl movement. In the Pacific-Northwest, it was about sheer energy and youthful exuberance. In the East, it was about songcraft and esoteric guitar music that amazed even the boys with hands in their pockets. Wild Flag captures both. Besides that, it was great just to see 2/3 of Sleater-Kinney and Mary Timony back on stage in an important band.
1. Yuck – More so than any other band or genre shift, Yuck epitomizes nineties indie rock. It’s surprising as most of the band members are barely old enough to remember what that was like. At times, they sound like Dinosaur Jr. and at others like My Bloody Valentine. Then, it’s just straight up indie a la Sebadoh, Pavement, [name of generic nineties indie band here], etc. It’s nothing new, but it’s done well.
More lists to come… Feel free to comment on what I missed or other lists I should write this month. Tomorrow is a Session post, so the next list might come out over the weekend but no later than Monday.
How are beer and music boring, or rather, “boring?” There’s been a discussion online over what makes something both artistically significant and boring. Now, months too late, I’m joining the fray.
Instead of rehashing the entire saga, I’ll point to the two pieces that inspired this post. First, there was Dan Kois’ “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables” where the author had the gull to suggest that the critical darlings of film are actually rather slow, boring even. Other film critics did not agree. Then, his good buddy, Steven Hyden, over at AV Club said basically the same thing about music. I suspect the AV Club piece will garner less vitriol than the film piece. Still, both critiques are spot-on. The most critically-acclaimed film and music can be a bit tedious.
Hyden differentiates the boringness of film and music. In music criticism, he writes, “…we have no problem classifying art as boring.” Eventually, he differentiates the boring from the “boring.” Hyden writes:
Any kind of music can be boring depending on the listener. No song is inherently not-boring—not even CCR’s “Ramble Tamble”—because boring is obviously based on subjective perception. This makes boring music hard to pin down. In a sense, all music is boring. The same, however, can’t be said about “boring” music. “Boring” is its own genre. It is a code word that instantly conjures artists with clearly definable attributes. “Boring” music is slow to mid-tempo, mellow, melodic, pretty in a melancholy way, catchy, poppy, and rooted in traditional forms. It is popular (or popular-ish). It is tasteful, well-played, and meticulously produced. (Or it might sound like it was recorded in somebody’s bedroom under the influence of weed and Sega Genesis.) It is “easy to like”—or more specifically, “easy for white people to like” (“white people” being a sub-group of white people singled out by other white people). It is critically acclaimed (perhaps the most critically acclaimed music there is), and yet music critics relish taking “boring” musical artists down a peg more than any other kind of artist.
He continues by naming BICTBAP favorites Fleet Foxes, The National, ST. Vincent, among others whom he considers to be “boring.” I can’t really argue with that assessment. I’m white people. I like that music.
Then, I consider whether or not I still like that music. Sure, it’s fine, but I haven’t listened to the last National album since well over a year ago and that’s because I rode in a car playing it on the way to seeing them in St. Louis. Hyden argues that “boring” is not necessarily bad. I’d argue that it’s not necessarily good either. “Boring” has the same effect as boring. The only difference is that we can’t figure out how to dislike some art when it’s “boring” until one day, it just occurs to us. With boring art or music, we know right away.
So, I considered what the effects of “boring” music on my musical tastes are. Well, I think not too long ago, I proclaimed (more like hinted) that the Fleet Foxes album, Helplessness Blues was the album of the year. I did the same for Bon Iver. While I still think these are very good records (I am still a white guy), they have long since been passed by more-immediate-but-just-as-deftly-performed albums by Wild Flag and Stephen Malkmus. Those last two records contain so much more urgency and soul (more on this tomorrow).
“Boring” music may impress me at first, but it doesn’t stay with me for long. I get, well, bored after a while and need something to properly get me to move my feet. Records by Cults, Tune-Yards, and Eleanor Friedberger are not boring. I get up and dance with my three-year-old when these records play. Bon Iver? not so much.
And since this is a music and beer blog, I considered the “boring”-ness of craft beer, because it’s out there. I’ll refrain from naming breweries as I want to support all craft breweries and recognize that they have a certain clientele that enjoy “boring” beer. I will also brace myself for the inevitable backlash from beer critics who, like their counterparts in film and music criticism, will be outraged* at the thought that traditional styles such as British pale ales, ESB’s, American wheat ales, or amber ales could possibly be “boring.” Well, they kinda are. I recognize that a well-made beer in any style can be enjoyable, but “boring” beer just doesn’t do it for me.
To be clear, a “boring” beer isn’t necessarily bad. The run of the mill pale ale at your local brewery is probably a fine brew, but sometimes we want more than fine. Typically, but not always, “boring” beers are your basic styles with little variation in traditional ingredients. They are true to customary recipes and are often executed well. However, they’re just “boring.” I don’t often reach for “boring.” I’ve had it and now I want something else.
Beers that push the limits are beers that won’t qualify as “boring.” Now, that doesn’t mean all these beers have to be imperial or extreme to be considered not “boring.” Non-”boring” beers challenge the palate and wow the drinker with each sip. These beers will make you excited to be a craft beer convert. These beers inspire blog posts and cause one to try their hand at homebrewing. No “boring” beer for me, thankyouverymuch.
What’s interesting to me, is that in both the case of “boring” music and “boring” beer, they both appeal to middle-aged, white guy (says the middle-aged white guy). We like our Boulevard Wheat and our Wilco. We watch baseball and may even be caught with a baseball cap on now and again. We too are “boring.” And there’s nothing wrong with that. However, sometimes (more often for some than others), we need to break free of “boring.” Let’s have a La Folie, listen to some Japandroids, and squeeze into a pair of jeans that fit you for christ’s sake.
As you may have noticed “boring” begins to take on a value for me, making it seem more like the other boring. I cannot lie. “Boring” music and beer… well… bores me. Again, there’s nothing wrong with any of it. I just find “boring” to be boring at some point. There may be moments when “boring” is fine, but I prefer to look for anything but “boring.”
What are your thoughts on “boring?” Am I right on or way off base? Are there good examples out there of “boring?” Is this blog becoming “boring?” As usual, leave your thoughts and/or self-righteous indignation in the comments below.
*Outraged might be a bit too strong. Mildly annoyed? LOL? This blog’s title is too long.
Some bands can’t help the kind of audience they attract. Of course, if you choose to make certain kinds of music, you get what you deserve. Play silly pop-punk; you get the Hot Topic set. Play drugged out shoegaze; you get artsy-fartsy followers. Play anything jammy or rootsy…
Fleet Foxes are no different. They attract a certain crowd, especially now that they’re a know quantity. Pitchfork buzz and Sub Pop marketing has allowed them a status typically reserved for My Morning Jacket or Band of Horses. Every college bro knows who Fleet Foxes is. And despite the fact that Fleet Foxes hasn’t reached the depths of college rock aridity, they are just feel-good and jammy enough to attract a whole lot o’ bros.
I witnessed this Monday night at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City. One would assume a bearded band lauded by Pitchfork would attract only bearded boys who read Pitchfork, but one would be wrong. I saw more beards last week in a tiny club the tenth the size of the Uptown in DC when I had the pleasure of witnessing Bill Callahan and all his non-bro glory than I did Monday night. It may have been the crazy hot temperatures we’ve had this year, but there weren’t a lot of beards, not as many as you’d think. There was, however, a shit-ton of cargo shorts and summer dresses. That’s right, even Pitchfork darlings attract Joe and Joann College when they play jammy, down-home music with falsetto and harmonies galore.
The heat generated by all the bromance in the air and stench of Axe body spray failing to cover up all the BO was too much for me. I retreated to the lobby to listen about two or three songs before the end. And listening was all I needed to do to enjoy the night.
Fleet Foxes are the real thing in terms of transferring that stirring sound on record to the live stage. Even with voices weary from the road, the band was able to recreate the beauty contained on their 2+ albums of work. Aside from the mentioned voice fatigue, if frontman Robin Pecknold could ever get a guitar to work correctly, the performance would have been flawless.
I know that I shouldn’t base my feelings for a concert on the audience, but it’s hard when you spend a show among them, separated from the band. I won’t write off Feet Foxes because of this. Hell, despite what I suggested above, I don’t lump them in with the vanilla roots of My Morning Jacket and the slowly fading Band of Horses. No, Fleet Foxes are much better songwriters and craftsman than those bands. However, if they continue to attract the same kinds of crowds, I don’t know that I’ll be seeing Fleet Foxes again. I may have to join the cynics and cranks who hate the sort of thing they do. These critics will tell me “I told you so” and I’ll have to admit they were right. Still, Fleet Foxes is not a shitty college jam band. Monday night proved that. I think.
Helplessness Blues, the Fleet Foxes’ sophomore effort, is the best folk record you’ve heard since…well…the last Fleet Foxes’ record. It’s hard to fathom that such a decidedly uncool genre can occupy such a cool space in music. I credit Fleet Foxes’ craftsmanship and their filling a need in music for this sort of thing. Plus, they have breathed fresh air into a genre that desperately needed it.
What is also unique is that Fleet Foxes continue Sub Pop’s evolution into a label that matches the preferences of their ever-aging audience. It’s completely fathomable to imagine old grunge dudes hanging around a campfire singing folk songs instead of “Touch Me I’m Sick.” Let’s just hope Fleet Foxes don’t go down the same road as their label mates Iron & Wine. Helplessness suggests that won’t happen.
The biggest difference this time around for FF is movement away from a dependency on harmonies to carry their songs. The harmonies are still there; they’re just not the dominant component anymore. This record is chocked full of varying instrumentation that borders on over-saturation without boring the listener. Quite the contrary, in fact, the instrumentation proves that these young men are more than the collective effect of their voices. Not only is the instrumentation varied, but it is brought to the forefront as way to enrich the band’s sound.
Another area in which this Fleet Foxes’ album expands upon the last is in the development of frontman Robin Pecknold. As I listened to Helplessness, I couldn’t help but notice that one voice was rising above the others. It’s no secret that Pecknold has a pretty incredible voice, but this record features him more prominently than the last. There is even a point when his voice cracks a bit under the strain of emotion (“The Shrine/An Argument”).
Then, there is Pecknold’s development as a songwriter. Lyrically, Fleet Foxes have typically been more impressionistic, vague, or even obtuse. However, this time out, Pecknold makes the narrative and emotions perfectly clear with great detail. The moment of uncertainty for a man between his youth and adulthood is pronounced throughout Helplessness, but Pecknold is the one who makes this crystal clear through his poetic tales.
“Montezuma” opens the record the way the debut left us with a lush soundscape of voices over light instrumentation. However, the tenor of this album is much more somber and this is no more apparent in this album than on the first track. The realization of that purgatory between childhood and adulthood is fully apparent. The only thing that gets him through is to sing about it. And sing Robin Pecknold does.
With an arsenic violin break following the first verse, “Bedouin Dress” sets a new president instrumentally for Fleet Foxes. Pecknold’s seat atop the Fleet Fox mountain is apparent as this song feels as if it’s coming from him and the band dutifully backs him. The instrumentation is textured and intricate without being showy or boring. There’s a pace to this track that quickens the soul, something I don’t know I could have said on Fleet Foxes.
The band demonstrates that it’s more than echoey space as they fill every crack and crevice with voice and string on “Sim Sala Bim.” Even the quiet moments fill the speakers. Phil Eck has truly outdone himself by capturing the echoes, ghosts, and every vibration created in every strum of a chord or harmonized word.
Speaking of echoes, “Battery Kinzie” displays a wall of sound that would have made Phil Spector proud. And above all that, Recknold’s words and voice stand out. That’s not to say the rest of the Foxes are useless. No. They fill the space that even Recknold’s voice cannot, accompanying their frontman as no one else could. Again, textures exist throughout. This track also displays how the harmonies have become the accompaniment to the FF sound and not the dominant characteristic.
“The Plains/Bitter Dancer” builds to some pretty epic proportions before breaking down into a classic Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young singalong. The tone is melancholy and moves at that new Fleet Foxes pace. Even the flute doesn’t make me wince at the folkiness. The second half mounts a gospel onslaught and almost blows the speakers. Almost.
The title track continues the theme of that quarter-life crisis which is where I suppose the helplessness blues set in. Lost is the joy and naiveté of youth and in front lies the uncertainty of adulthood that does nothing but question one’s ideals. Recknold is spiraling through this song. I wondered if this sentiment grew immensely during the turbulent recording of the record. Things I’ve read say that the band had to scrap the first version of the album amidst illness and touring. Anyway, the song expresses a need to get lost in one’s work as a way to get past this critical point in development, just to find some peace.
“The Cascades” is a folky jam session that eventually gives way to the pageantry of “Lorelai,” a light, narrative of a devastating breakup, particularly as the words “I was old news to you then” are sung. Oddly, this sad, sad song is maybe the band’s poppiest to date. The sadness of a breakup continues with the somber-before-defiant “Someone You’d Admire.”
“The Shrine/An Argument” is the moment when Reckhold’s development as a singer comes through for me. He sings within himself before unleashing so much emotion that his voice gives under the pressure, just before he brings it together to harmonize perfectly with his band mates. Sure, in the recording process, this can be manufactured a bit, but it’s still impressive that they would try this live at some point. This track is certainly one of the album’s most ambitious and challenging. The second half escalates almost to the point of an Animal Collective explosion, if that’s even possible in a folk song. The track closes with yet a third piece that is almost psychedelic, complete with a Coltrane-esque sax solo, brining this epic track to conclusion.
“Blue-Spotted Tail” is the band’s Cat Stevens homage, unintentional or not. After the lushness and textured instrumentation of the rest of the record (along with the previous track’s experimentation), this song provides a bit of balance before the record closes for good with “Grown Ocean,” the closest the band comes to sounding rock ‘n roll. Still, the rolling nature of the track carries the listener from all the depths they’ve had to trudge in order to follow Fleet Foxes through meadows and mountains to the musical summit.
Fleet Foxes prove that expanding the prefect sound and putting out a sophomore record doesn’t have to mean death to a band. Helplessness Blues extend the Fleet Foxes legend and somehow makes it cool to listen to folk music again. Your mom might even like it.
1This may or may not be true, but that first record stood out among so many others, regardless of genre.
2Here’s a recurring theme on the blog. I appreciate craftsmanship in its many forms.
3Iron & Wine is one of the great disappointments of the last decade. They started with such promise before Sam Beam went all Eagles on us.
4Don’t get me wrong. Those harmonies are some of the best in music, but they needed other components to their music.
5Sometimes too much is too much. I don’t know why it is, but some musicians and bands think adding more instruments is the way to improve the sound. However, twenty musicians overplaying mediocre music isn’t any better than three. Then, there are the exceptions. I still don’t know how Sufjan Stevens does it.
6I will bring this up again as it was a pretty significant moment for me in the record.
7I tried really hard to avoid the terms “lush” and “textured” in this review, but I can only do so much. For one, my vocabulary is limited. Second, I’m not paid to do this. So, you get what you get. Be on the lookout for a lush and textured review.
8See. I wasn’t kidding.
9There’s something about the technically proficient, showy, jammy bands that bore me to death. If I wanted to hear you masturbate, I’d put a mic in your bathroom. And that’s what it is (or can be): mental masturbation.
10Eck has been around forever producing and recording records in Seattle and throughout the Northwest. I think he’s had a hand in nearly every band I’ve ever liked from the region. He’s a vastly underrated record producer.
11A quarter-life crisis is what middle-to-upper-middle class white folk suffer from when they have too much education for the minimum wage jobs available to them. I hear it’s an epidemic. In a lot of ways, this album paints this issue in a serious light. The difference is that the boys in Fleet Foxes are doing something about it. They’re making music.
12I told you that I’d mention it again. Moments like these are important because they make the artist seem human, fallible. I don’t want a perfect recording. I prefer my music with imperfections like the people making the music.
13I get to see the band in July and hope to hear that same sort of performance then.
14Using the word “epic” to describe anything used to have meaning. Now, everyone overuses it. Not everything is epic. That’s why something is epic. Quit using the term to describe every night out, piece of bacon, or test. “Epic” is something bigger than life, huge. This is not a word to be used every day, hour, or sentence. God, I hate the internet sometimes.
15Talk about epic proportions and mental masturbation.
16That was my little segue into Mother’s Day weekend.