Year of the Album — #030
Fleet Foxes – “Helplessness Blues” (2011, Sub Pop / Bella Union)
Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold publicly said he’d hoped the Seattle band’s second album Helplessness Blues would come off as a “less poppy, less upbeat and more groove-based” effort, and in that regard he’s succeeded better than anyone could have expected. What’s most invigorating about the listening experience, however, is that the album manages to strip away the pop trappings without making the musical quality suffer; this is the kind of album you’d hope Simon and Garfunkel could be producing had the duo ever reunited in this modern musical age.
Fleet Foxes’ sophomore album follows a very classically folk-oriented formula, recorded very much in the moment — Pecknold aimed for Astral Weeks’ timeless quality, and while only time will tell whether the album holds up as well, the resulting depth and quality of Helplessness Blues speaks for itself. That much of the album’s vocals were recorded in one take (“even if there are fuck-ups, I want them to be on there,” Pecknold told the Guardian) it’s impressive just how many layers there are in these songs to slowly peel away on repeated listens.
“The Plains / Bitter Dancer” is one of the strongest classically harmonized melodic folk songs I’ve heard from a contemporary indie band; the multi-layered, texture-rich vocal harmonies transcend anything the band’s contemporaries could produce, hearkening back to the raw beauty of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s strongest songs. That the rest of the album manages to frequently live up to such high musical goals makes Helplessness Blues a truly exceptional album, well worthy of the praise it has been receiving.
Fleet Foxes have managed to defy the sophomore slump any ground on this effort, and anyone who fancies himself a fan of folk or independent music highly charged with depth and originality needs to seek this album out. This is a band we’ll be hearing amazing music from well into the next decade. If you’ve never heard anything from the band prior to this, you’ll surely be a convert from here on.