On the modern rock scene, where new ideas are scarce and fads are rules to live by, going retro has become a cliché, and one that more often than not has a negative connotation.
The notion of going retro conjures visions of everything from creatively bankrupt rock outfits who survive by regurgitating the ideas of their influences to sardonic hipsters ironically deconstructing music that they themselves could never hope to produce to interchangeable guitar-rock bands selling cheap nostalgia.
Thus going retro has become a bad joke, a frustrating phenomenon that breeds stagnation and has even contributed to the lethargic, disjointed development of an entire artistic medium.
Needless to say, there are exceptions to this rule. Groups like The Coral, an ensemble profoundly influenced by sixties psychedelia, have managed to breathe new life into the genre through their youthful exuberance and impeccable songwriting. Even The Coral have difficulty standing out amongst the legions of me-too sixties knockoffs, however; they may be at the pinnacle of their form, but that doesn't change the fact that they're still just one of countless bands milking a formula whose freshness expired decades ago with little to truly add to its legacy.
It is possible, however, to go retro while circumventing this minefield of staleness and cliché, and Fleet Foxes have adroitly managed this feat. By adopting a style that's been virtually wholly neglected by the preponderance of their contemporaries, Fleet Foxes are able to sound fresh and exciting while still adhering to the tenets of a bygone era, a charming anachronism who are able to make the old sound new via their inspired interpretation of their retro influences.
Fleet Foxes are an indie rock group who specialize in folk-pop, deftly marrying compelling yet spare arrangements to gorgeous vocal harmonies to produce a sweeping, moving experience quite unlike anything else that can be encountered on the current rock scene.
When most new groups release an EP to showcase their abilities the most they can hope for is to suggest a healthy level of potential, but on Fleet Foxes' five-song sampler they prove that they've already arrived, exhibiting material of a caliber that goes far beyond the tentative designation of 'showing promise.'
The opening title track proves an ideal forum for demonstrating the band's spectacular vocal harmonies, a predominantly a capella opus of a beauty seldom encountered in the current rock climate. The band proves that their vocals alone are enough to propel their audience to the dizzying heights of sonic splendor, while the song's instrumental coda is charmingly quaint, an ideal conclusion for what's come before.
While vocals alone proved sufficient for the bulk of the title track, the remaining numbers demonstrate that Fleet Foxes are at their best when they accompany their gorgeous harmonies with their superb arrangements.
Generally when a rock song is said to be beautiful it denotes a crude bifurcation of the rock side and the beautiful side, a haphazard compartmentalization of seemingly incompatible elements. On Drops In The River, however, Fleet Foxes are able to craft a song that remains beautiful even when it rocks, the mark of a truly skilled, gifted and versatile rock outfit.
Elsewhere Innocent Son is quite powerful even in its brevity, a fitting closer that ends on a strong note without overshadowing what's come before.
The true highlights, however, are the incredible duo of English House and Mykonos, two songs that truly elevate Fleet Foxes to the upper echelon of contemporary rock music.
Like everything else on the album English House is truly beautiful, an example of folk pop at its finest. The song sounds timeless as opposed to dated, animated by superb melodies that are creative even when they're old-fashioned, adroitly blending the new and the old with alchemic precision.
It's Mykonos, however, that represents the zenith of the album, a brilliant track that even manages to surpass any number from the band's full-length debut. Mykonos has a darker edge than the other tracks which, if anything, makes the song's innate beauty all the more potent and resonant. While not a long song, Mykonos still contains multiple sections, with fluid segues eloquently merging the track's array of catchy, pristine melodies, all building to the song's climactic, powerful crescendo. In this regard the song can be seen as a miniature epic, losing nothing in scope or grandeur due to its diminutive length.
Thus Sun Giant is a spectacular debut for Fleet Foxes, its sole liability being its small number of tracks. Fleet Foxes are a truly refreshing act, emerging on the rock scene with a sound that differentiates them from virtually all of their contemporaries. While Fleet Foxes are undeniably a niche group, it's a niche that has been woefully vacant for far too long, and one that I hope they'll continue to occupy for a long, long time.
With the release of Sun Giant, Fleet Foxes demonstrated precisely what they had to offer to connoisseurs of indie pop and folk music alike, but there's all the difference in the world between producing a high quality five song EP and a full-length album.
Pitfalls like filler and unevenness are considerably easier to evade when one's crafting a work with a runtime under twenty minutes, and thus while an EP may constitute an apt litmus test for gauging one's innate, reflexive reaction to a group, it offers little indication of the overall worth of a rock outfit.
The material on Sun Giant set very high standards for Fleet Foxes' eponymous first outing to live up to, a scenario that must have appeared rather daunting to a group still essentially in the early stages of their development.
Sun Giant was devoid of anything that could be construed as filler, and furthermore boasted two tracks eminently worthy of being called modern day masterpieces. Once a band has set a precedent like that for themselves, the very notion of releasing more content becomes quite an intimidating prospect, particularly when a group is called upon to sustain this level of quality for the duration of a product that's over twice as long as their first effort.
Lesser groups would buckle under such pressure, but thankfully Fleet Foxes were more than equipped to handle the situation, acquitting themselves more than admirably when faced with this formidable challenge.
Sun Giant established the band's core sound, so critics and fans alike knew precisely what to expect from Fleet Foxes' proper debut. Thus the group's first outing has little to offer in the way of surprises, providing an experience quite like their EP only longer.
This may seem like simply stating the obvious, but when one's audience already harbors a clear-cut notion of what's to come it becomes considerably more difficult to arrest their attention for a full forty minutes, placing yet another obstacle in the path of a band trying to live up to seemingly insurmountable standards.
Knowing that Fleet Foxes is essentially a prolonged version of Sun Giant (from a stylistic perspective, that is), with no unexpected twists to jolt a listener lest their attention begin to stray, the only way that the band could possibly succeed would be to craft an album comprised solely of high quality songs adhering to the group's trademark formula, a task that sounds like an exercise in frustration and futility.
Fortunately, that's precisely where Fleet Foxes manage to defy the odds, as their debut is a stunningly consistent work of art bereft of anything even remotely resembling padding or misfires.
Every song on Fleet Foxes boasts a strong melody, accompanied by rich, deep aural splendor that effortlessly transcends the brand of forced catharsis peddled by lesser bands who attempt to inject beauty into their music.
Fleet Foxes' beauty is far more than cheap instrumental flourishes, hackneyed over-emotive vocals or shameless tear-jerker power chords; rather, it's a penetrating, nuanced interpretation of very real emotions, constantly shifting to adapt to the contexts of varying tracks. It's not a simple gimmick, nor is it an inert, unchanging tone; different brands of beauty arrive on different tracks, never merely treading the same ground ad-nauseum.
The album is so consistent that's it's difficult to isolate individual highlights, but some particularly impressive numbers include the anthemic, rousing harmonies of White Winter Hymnal, the sneering menace of the harder-edged Your Protector (complete with a truly brilliant vocal hook in the surprisingly rocking refrain) and the spectacular Blue Ridge Mountains.
Thus Fleet Foxes have fulfilled every promise made on Sun Giant, crafting a work that is to albums what Sun Giant was to EPs, namely a brilliant opus that reaches the pinnacle of its form. The album is truly excellent, filled with unforgettable melodies, gorgeous arrangements, rich harmonies and a sound that encompasses the best that indie pop and folk music has to offer. This makes for a truly unique listen, and one that no listener will soon forget.
Unsurprisingly, Helplessness Blues is essentially more of the same from Robin Pecknold and company. The fact of the matter, however, is that Fleet Foxes occupy such a unique niche in the indie rock scene, and are so good at what they do, that it would almost be a shame if they ever progressed beyond their current style.
Helplessness Blues is indeed folk pop at its finest. Folk aficionados may scoff at this, saying that the lush vocal harmonies and pop hooks dilute the purity of the genre. A complaint of this nature, however, would be akin to criticizing AC/DC for subordinating their blues elements to their hard rock chops. Fleet Foxes never professed to be a true folk group, nor even a comparatively mainstream and accessible one like Fairport Convention. Rather, Fleet Foxes deftly integrate folk music with indie pop, striking an elegant balance in which the best of both genres is well represented.
While Fleet Foxes don't strive to preserve an authentic folk feel, they also don't neglect their folk influences. To this end, the band bring in a number of folk instruments that most contemporary rock fans doubtlessly haven't even heard of. Fleet Foxes may not need a Marxophone or Tremoloa in their arrangements, but their presence is a healthy sign of the group's commitment to the folk side of their persona.
Such concerns are ancillary to the substance of the album, curious trivia that has little bearing on the final product. What matters is that Helplessness Blues, much like Sun Giant and the band's full-length debut, is a work of profound beauty.
Whether they're used in Beach Boys-esque harmonies with his fellow band-members or delivered solo, Pecknold's vocals are gorgeous throughout. These vocals are married to comparably moving instrumental arrangements, resulting in a beauty that never feels forced or calculated. This seemingly effortless beauty permeates the entire album, so that even a middling track like Someone You'd Admire, which would otherwise come across as filler, is still a pleasure to listen to.
What makes Fleet Foxes such an impressive group, however, is that they seldom rely on beauty at the expense of strong songwriting. Pecknold is a brilliant composer, and thus Helplessness Blues is filled with creative melodies and memorable hooks. A track like Sim Sala Bim may be beautiful, but it's also a prime example of catchy pop music. The beauty and fundamental catchiness never compromise or detract from one another, just as the band's pop and folk sides not only coexist but actually complement each other in the long run.
The album isn't without blemishes. It's unfortunate that a terrific song like The Shrine/An Argument is marred by an extraneous dissonant passage. Luckily a self-indulgent flourish like that is atypical for the band, who generally prize musical fidelity above all else.
Thus Fleet Foxes adroitly evade the sophomore slump, providing an excellent counterpart to their similarly brilliant debut. There really is little in the current rock climate that sounds even vaguely reminiscent of Fleet Foxes, and this makes an already strong band all the more special. Few would think to accompany lush pop harmonies with rich, nuanced folk-tinged arrangements, and fewer would imagine that it could be done quite so spectacularly well.