Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

Rating: B+

What is it that makes indie music "indie?"  Obviously the label is a primary determinant, but why is it that a band like Ted Leo and the Pharmacists or Spoon doesn't achieve major-label success but a Coldplay or Dave Matthews Band does? And how is that an occasional Radiohead or Arcade Fire crosses over?

I've come to the conclusion through the years that a major determinant is the lead singer's voice.  As much as I love Colin Meloy and his voice, it's too nasally and idiosyncratic for The Decemberists to hit it big on Total Request Live (is that show even on still?).  Which brings me to Fleet Foxes. I didn't have this blog back in 2008, but if I did there's no doubt that their eponymous LP debut would have been my album of the year.  When I did my Top 10 Concerts Ever list, they clocked in at #3.  Their amazing work, combined with their almost-complete anonymity in conventional circles, made me question my Unconventional Voice Theory of commercial success.  Because honestly, if these guys, led by the precocious and angel-voiced Robin Pecknold and featuring gorgeous backing harmonies ne'er seen since The Beach Boys and Eagles, can't make it ... what the heck, right?  It almost seemed like Fleet Foxes' fatal flaw was being too beautiful: the harmonies too magical, the melodies too perfect, the acoustic backing too pretty.  That's a depressing thought, if modern taste has drifted away from music for being too gorgeous.

Helplessness Blues, the three-years-in-the-making follow-up, finds a bit of an older, wiser, more cynical Pecknold; despite only being 25, he starts the album with Montezuma, boasting the refrain "Oh the man I used to be."  In the title track, he pans not only the "rock star" mythos but even the very idea of artistic expression; "If I had an orchard / I'd work 'till I'm sore," he sings, glorifying the pastoral lifestyle at the expense of believing he's "a snowflake distinct among snowflakes."

Ultimately, Fleet Foxes tunes aren't about the lyrics, which serve more to create a poetic backdrop for the melodies, harmonies, and acoustic instrumentation.  Here's where Helplessness Blues deviates from its predecessor; on the plus side, it shows greater dynamic range - witness the hypnotic finger-picking guitar that opens "The Shrine / An Argument," only to degenerate into dissonant brass over pounding drums in the last half of the track.  The album is full of these touches, which gives it a lot of substance to chew on; on the other hand, the suite-songs aren't as immediately catchy as "White Winter Hymnal."

As a big fan of the group, I'm happy to see Helplessness Blues is a strong followup to Fleet Foxes and I'm looking forward to more excellence in the future.

Fleet Foxes official site

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