May 02, 2011 Web Exclusive
The delay between Fleet Foxes' first album and their second was partially due to a self-proclaimed sudden lack of confidence on the part of singer/lyricist/ringleader Robin Pecknold. The foremost quality of the band's debut was its startling poise, and so there might be some concern that Fleet Foxes' chief strength might be compromised. Those fears are dashed, joyfully, by the fantastic Helplessness Blues, an extension and deepening of the band's sound.
Because they emerged sounding so full, with harmonies to make '60s and '70s folkies proud, it's hard to conceive of how the band could grow. Yet, on Helplessness Blues, they have grown, not like a weed overnight, but like a creeping vine, in ways barely perceptible. Helplessness Blues puts more of an emphasis on country, with fiddles dotting "Bedouin Dress" and slide guitars popping up on a number of songs. There's some genuine menace to "The Shrine / An Argument," an emotion that's not found on Fleet Foxes despite lyrics that might warrant it. Broadening the emotional spectrum further is Pecknold's vocals, which explode into an uncontrolled yelp, only to be answered by some honeyed harmonies. Throughout, the musicianship is more evident and the members (Josh Tillman and Morgan Henderson) added since recording the debut don't overwhelm the sound or make the music too busy: Helplessness Blues finds Fleet Foxes sharper and more focused than before. In fact, Tillman's intuitive drumming keeps the band on solid footing through such sweeping epics as "Lorelai." Ingenious producer Phil Ek also keeps everything in its proper place.
Whatever Pecknold went through as a writer, he's emerged stronger for it. His lyrics, which are a great point of emphasis because they're so clear-voiced and audible, are—like the band—infallible in their earnestness. Fleet Foxes write about earthen things—dust and dirt—and the fears and failings of lost time. "Oh man/what I used to be," Pecknold sings on "Montezuma." "Now/I can see how/We were like dust on the window," he croons during "Lorelai," and the lyrics' gently unfurling phrasing is a specialty of his, and works hand-in-hand with the way the harmonies twist around his voice.
Fleet Foxes make all of this sound easy and organic, as if they sat down on someone's porch and Helplessness Blues flowed out of them. Far from that folksy, laid-back image, Helplessness Blues confirms Fleet Foxes' place as one of the most exacting, creative, and straight-up best bands making music in 2011. (www.fleetfoxes.com)
Author rating: 8/10
Average reader rating: 9/10