Sunday, May 15, 2011

Helplessless Blues

Fleet Foxes' sophomore effort, Helplessness Blues is a carefully but wonderfully crafted album that works on every level, and it’s much more musically rich than their self-titled debut. Lyrically, it’s more self-reflective. It isn't as immediately accessible as the first one, but with a bit of patience comes a rewarding listening experience. I applaud them for moving out of their comfort zone and experimenting a bit more. Robin Pecknold’s magical voice drenched in reverb throughout the record (except for the solo Blue Spotted Tail) conjures up dreamy landscapes in the songs, or in the case of the instrumental The Cascades, medieval. Again, expect gorgeous Beach Boys harmonies but don’t just listen to the band for this reason alone. There’s a lot more going on under those collective vocals. The acoustic guitars and percussion communicate particularly well with each other to create some exciting music. And then there are more new instruments to play with.

Several of the tunes here are broken up into mini-segments that sound different from one another. This is apparent in the new epic 8-minute The Shrine/An Augment, so much so it works exactly like a medley of songs; and that final part with the dissonant violin playing is just plain weird, something you would never expect from a folk band. Another one that has epic written all over it is the introspective title track, in my opinion Fleet Foxes’ best song yet. Starts out somber, but soon you’re swept up by the high-energy guitar strumming in the chorus. Strangely my favorite part is when during the third verse, the strumming is taken down a notch, going back to the way it was played at beginning of the song. It’s a simple technique I know, but somehow it’s just brilliantly done. But the whole song is just a force of nature. And where do you go halfway through? Totally change the time signature and melody, and then ending the song with a whisper instead of a loud bang. Very innovative. Speaking of which, they also manage to take what starts out like a simple piece of music in the Paul Simon inspired Sim Sala Bim and turn it upside down; by the end, you’re left wondering what just happened.

There’s also this song called Lorelai (they got some unconventional song titles on this album), which has the triplet do-ta-ta rhythm, and I’m hundred percent sure that the band lifted a huge page out of Dylan’s Fourth Time Around (from Blonde On Blonde) -- just listen to the almost intricate guitar playing and the way Robin sings the verses. There are other influences, mainly from the folk rock of the ‘70s, like CSNY (especially Graham Nash) in songs like Bedouin Dress and Bitter Dancer. Fleet Foxes are one of the few bands of their generation that have made a real album; and by that I mean an album with no fillers, an album that’s meant to be heard straight from start to finish. And by the end of it, you’re supposed to be emotionally drained, and the closer Grown Ocean makes you feel just that. We should be thankful for them for keeping the concept of the album alive.