Album Review: Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues”

Once upon a time, I was headed off to see Wilco in Bend, Oregon. As I tend to do, I checked to see who was opening, because I tend to get a lot more enjoyment out of concerts if I’m at least a little familiar with what I’m about to see. Opening for Wilco at that show in late August 2008: Fleet Foxes.

I sampled a little on the internet and went straight down to the record store to pick up the self-titled album and the Sun Giant EP. I spent the next several weeks getting more familiar, and I liked what I heard. Oregon was lovely, the show was excellent, and the whole thing wound up with Jeff Tweedy and Robin Pecknold tearing up the  lead vocals to “I Shall Be Released”. Expansive feeling of well-being achieved, I drove back over the Cascades to Portland and flew back to Denver.

Since then, Fleet Foxes have made an appearance on a few of my playlists. I tend to listen to them when I’m driving in the mountains; they’re a natural soundtrack for that, for whatever reason. (I’ll spare us all my crackpotted theories about regional music.) I like their work. There are things I don’t like about their work — things that keep them from being on my All-Time Favorite Artists list — but their work is pleasant, generally inoffensive, and I’ve got good associations with it. If you divide a given song into instrumented music versus lyrics, the music wins, every time. It’s not that the lyrics are bad, they’re just not as good as the rest of it. They don’t take risks, and so I don’t listen to Fleet Foxes when I’m in the mood for risk-taking.

I was looking forward to their second album, Helplessness Blues, and now that I’ve got it in my hands and in my ears I like it well enough. The album is what Fleet Foxes does: shimmery, mostly acoustic music, with a lot of reverb, and good, tight close harmony. Helplessness Blues, like Fleet Foxes and Sun Giant, is generally inoffensive and doesn’t take risks. It’s music that sounds easy. If that kind of music is not your thing, you won’t like Fleet Foxes.

The question I’m still trying to answer for myself is how Helplessness Blues differs from their first two releases. The most obvious way isn’t one I like: Fleet Foxes has this tendency to write songs in two or more parts, like a suite or a sonata. It’s tolerable in their earlier work, because like a suite or a sonata, you could always hear the relationship among the parts. You can tell how they’re supposed to fit together, and how Pecknold and company got from point A to point B. On Helplessness Blues it sounds a lot more like they’re jamming shorter songs into one track with pasted-on transitions because the shorter songs weren’t going anywhere by themselves. Songs don’t have to be linear, and they don’t have to consist of one movement, but if they’re going to go in the same track there should be some clear relationship between the pieces. It sounds like lazy songwriting. I don’t think that’s the case, and I don’t have beef with the band’s performance on the record, but it’s frustrating. They’re better than that, and I wish they sounded like it.

A perfect example of what I’m talking about is the title track. The first time I heard “Helplessness Blues”, I had to put down everything I was doing at work in order to sit back and let it sink in — until I got to the second half, at which point my eyebrows went up and I made a face.

If you chopped off the second half of the song — the part about the orchard and how the lady should be the waitress — it’d be much stronger. There’s a place for the second half, but I don’t know that it’s with the first. “I’d work till I’m sore” is a poor follow-up punch to the big questions about theology and power and self-determination the first half asks and attempts to answer.

That said, “Helplessness Blues” is maybe my favorite new track this year. (It’s either that or “Damn These Vampires” by the Mountain Goats.) And I’m absolutely going to be listening to the album for a while. Like I said: generally inoffensive, pretty, shimmery, good associations. It’s a solid follow-up to their first full-length album, but I have a feeling I’ll be more excited about their third album. And if you’re thinking about giving Fleet Foxes a try for the first time, I’d go with Fleet Foxes or Sun Giant first.

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