Beer and Pavement

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

Posted in Records by SM on May 6, 2011

Helplessness Blues, the Fleet Foxes’ sophomore effort, is the best folk record you’ve heard since…well…the last Fleet Foxes’ record[1]. It’s hard to fathom that such a decidedly uncool genre can occupy such a cool space in music. I credit Fleet Foxes’ craftsmanship[2] 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[3]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[4]. 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[5]. 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”)[6].

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[7] 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[8] and intricate without being showy or boring[9]. 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[10] 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[11] 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[12], 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[13]. 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[14] 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[15].

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[16].

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.

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8 Responses

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  1. Lyrics, Libations, and Life said, on May 6, 2011 at 8:43 am

    Great review, I have been listening to this one a lot lately debating reviewing it. I may rethink that because yours seems to top anything I could do.

  2. jeffmenter said, on May 6, 2011 at 9:13 am

    [16] Your mom? Crap, I might even like this.

  3. Pizza Cottontail said, on May 6, 2011 at 11:32 am

    I still need to spend some more time with the new album. I’m not disappointed but it hasn’t yet clicked with me like their earlier EP and album.

    • builderofcoalitions said, on May 6, 2011 at 11:55 am

      Yeah, it took me several extra listens to be honest. I also read some reviews which helped with the context. Eventually, it started making sense to me. I think I was wanting the first record over, sort of an Arcade Fire syndrome.

  4. […] content is not lacking, but it’s not the typical, literary Sheff we’re used to. Where Fleet Foxes made the leap forward by saying something pointed and specific, Okkervil River made a similar leap by withholding some information. And this slick production is […]

  5. […] been on repeat over the past few days and that’s saying something with the last couple of records I’ve received and reviewed. For this record, the women in (indie) rock should get their due. […]

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