It’s a bit of a challenge to parse out where Fleet Foxes fit in the spectrum of contemporary indie music. Nowadays, you’ve got your laptop-toting, 8-bit bedroom projects (Panda Bear, James Blake, tUnE-yArDs), your fuzzed-out surf rock pioneers (No Age, Wavves, Girls, Best Coast), your 80s revivalist synth-pop heroes (Hot Chip, Cut Copy, Twin Shadow, Wild Nothing), your what-the-hells (Animal Collective, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti), and your ever-popular bowtie n’ cardigan baroque bands (the Arcade Fire, Belle & Sebastian, Broken Social Scene, The Decemberists, the National, Grizzly Bear).
Yet while Fleet Foxes define themselves through the same type of intricate vocal arrangements and harmonies as their contemporaries, most reviewers tend not to compare them with anybody you’ll find on Pitchfork. In fact, Fleet Foxes’ lush, folk-flavored compositions typically draw comparisons to names from the 60s and 70s like Crosby, Stills & Nash, The Beach Boys, and Simon & Garfunkel. Above everything, the Seattle-based five piece set themselves apart by simply sounding unlike anyone else from this era, a claim to fame for which most bands spend their whole careers striving.
Fleet Foxes also distinguish themselves from their prim pop contemporaries by generally avoiding vintage boutiques and the J. Crew catalogue entirely. Decked in the type of torn flannels, frayed jeans, and less-than-groomed facial hair that speaks more to a “woodsman” sensibility than the ironic aesthetic enjoyed by most hipster bands, Fleet Foxes assume very little of their fans. For all intents and purposes, they’re just a bunch of dudes from Seattle who think it sounds pretty when they sing together.
So it helps that, more often than not, it's actually pretty breathtaking. Lead singer Robin Pecknold handles most of the singing and songwriting duties. His voice, fragile but self-assured, seems to polish over each syllable he sings until ordinary words sound as pure as the first day you ever heard them. Still, Pecknold and his squeaky clean pipes lean on the support of his fellow Foxes, whose voices often match and even outshine Pecknold’s. The band weaves together their vocal harmonies like an ornate tapestry, until every voice relies on the others, and no one voice stands out.
On their 2008 self-titled debut, Fleet Foxes blended a rich swirl of vocals with modest instrumentation to create a timeless sense of pastoral beauty in each composition. Soaked in reverb, songs like “White Winter Hymnal,” and “Blue Ridge Mountains” took on a woodland fairy tale quality, and with their ethereal voices and grizzled mugs, who better to lead us on a midnight jaunt through those woods than the shamanic Foxes?
To produce their sophomore release, Helplessness Blues, the band lost $60,000 in wasted recording time, and Pecknold’s painstaking focus on the album reportedly cost him his girlfriend of five years. If anything, the result justifies such speed bumps. Helplessness Blues proves that even after a three-year gap between albums, and even after spawning countless imitators since their debut, Fleet Foxes remain masters of their craft. The record plays to all their strengths while carving modest new territory for the band. In the process however, it never once loses touch of their inimitable sound.
Part of this new territory for Fleet Foxes means occasionally sidelining the power of vocal harmony and instead allowing their instruments to take the spotlight. The band opened both their Sun Giant EP and full-length debut by briefly showcasing just their entwined voices, but on Helplessness Blues’ opener “Montezuma,” a finger-picked electric guitar starts it off. “So now I am older / Than my mother and father / When they had their daughter / what does that say about me?” croons Pecknold before the rest of the band mesh their vocals onto his. That same guitar swims below it all until drummer J. Tillman’s perfectly tempered percussion hammers into a rippling instrumental break. Previously, Fleet Foxes opened both their debut and EP with balmy odes to the sun, effectively plunging us headfirst into the sounds of their warm and welcoming natural world. Helplessness Blues’ “Montezuma” feels rather static for an opener, and Pecknold’s sense of longing, especially with each “oh man what I used to be” refrain, immediately speaks to the album’s somber change of direction.
“Bedouin Dress” also opens with a guitar, acoustic this time, strumming along the song’s trotting rhythm like the accompaniment to some medieval fable. A quiet piano falls in, while Tillman taps authoritatively off beat. “If to borrow is to take and not return / I have borrowed all my lonesome life,” croons Pecknold, his voice as poised and as piercing as that of a bard’s. Most of the time, Fleet Foxes swallow up their other instruments into a sea of voices and guitar. So when a fiddle, light and lyrical, twirls playfully between Pecknold’s laments, it’s surprising how completely natural it feels. “Bedouin Dress” builds much in the same way, adding mandolins, percussion and harmony into a perfectly paced song. It ebbs and flows in just the right spots, never overwhelming Pecknold’s storytelling, but always bounding forward with child-like energy.
Its focus on instrumentation makes Helplessness Blues more than a necessary addition to the Fleet Foxes catalogue. Because the album’s guitar work and rhythmic urgency seems to take equal precedence to the singing, the band’s harmonies never wear on the listener. The album’s flow never seems to linger, even through the muted lilt of “Blue Spotted Tail,” or the defeated balladry of “Someone You’d Admire.” The energetic “Battery Kinzie” buzzes along like a freight train, and with its angelic harmonies and frolicking guitar line, “Lorelai” sounds as lighthearted and as positive as anything in Fleet Foxes’ catalogue. “Grown Ocean” skips so exuberantly around Pecknold’s livened account of his dreams, it feels like the sun-splashed celebration of a new day—hearkening back to the type of song they used to throw in the beginning of their records, and certainly an unexpected way to end an album.
Of course, the band’s signature mastery of the multi-part opus—previously demonstrated on classics like “Mykonos” and “Blue Ridge Mountains”—still reigns supreme on Helplessness Blues. The title track starts out strolling before it leaps into a full-on sprint, eventually taking off and soaring into the winding catharsis of its second half. Songs like “The Shrine / An Argument” and “The Plains / Bitter Dancer” sound so densely and lovingly arranged it seems impossible to separate them into individual tracks.
Overall, Helplessness Blues finds Fleet Foxes hitting all the right marks, broadening their scope, and somehow redefining the qualities that made us fall in love with them in the first place. In the rare case of a band that burst onto the scene already brimming with talent, and sounding as unique and as fully formed as seasoned veterans, that’s saying something.