Monday, 25 April 2011

REVIEW: Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues

The much anticipated second record from Seattle's finest folk band Fleet Foxes might just be the soundtrack of the Summer.

There's no denying that when Fleet Foxes burst onto the scene a little while ago with a magnificent EP then shortly followed by an even more impressive album, that folk was about to hit the mainstream like it hadn't done for quite a while. The soft, warm vocals with melodies and harmonies that could make you cry over such gentle guitar work was enough to make any cold heart flutter and melt. With such high hopes to live up to, it's great to see them keep up the good form on a very impressive second record.

First track Montezuma is a great doorway into the world you're about to enter. What you might notice from the off is that even though the reverb is still washing the entire sound, it has become a lot clearer and in a way, simpler. It feels less cluttered, more focused and wonderfully orchestrated. The sound carries onto Bedouin Trust which, through the violin, makes you feel like you could be in a barn on a warm summer night drinking the night away. Once again the lyrics are earnest, heart-felt and sung in such an emotional, beautiful manner that even if the guy was lying, you'd believe him anyway.

Sim Sala Bim is again proof of the amazing songwriting that this band effortlessly delivers. It was evident enough when I saw them on Jools Holland this week where they absolutely blew everyone else out of the water including Hugh Laurie's lame attempt at blues, KD Lang's terrible Nineties sound and some more awful 'out-of-the-box' sounds. Okay, so you won't be hard pushed to beat them perhaps, but I think it's common knowledge that no-one can really stand against Fleet Foxes in talent, ability and sheer genius. I might be over-gushing, but Sim Sala Bim shows how important they are as a unit and that, as a band, they cannot be outdone.

Battery Kinzie returns to the epic sound of the first album that people might be more familiar with. It shows a difference, though minute, between the two sounds of the albums. Helplessness Blues is a more relaxed, laid back affair and this might come through on the title. It's a more passive take, the music almost rolling off them in long, lush waves rather than the powerful punch of the first album. Singer Robin Pecknold suggested there were problems with this record and that it had become a life-changing experience. I can understand that. The Plains / Bitter Dancer is a dark, telling piece on relationships (much like Fleet Foxes' content - in fact much like all music's content) and the idea of problems, regret etc. told in an almost conversational manner. Either way, you can tell the album was a hard graft that had them spending hours tracing and retracing what they wished to achieve.

The songs feel rich and deep enough to roll around in and last single Helplessness Blues is a great example of the band still being able to provide those uplifting moments they are so amazingly good at. It's clear that the success they have enjoyed has only served to pressurise them to create something better, something every artist should think and Fleet Foxes' personal struggle with this comes across in the music in such a unique way that it feels so personal to the listener that you might be forgiven for forgetting that this hasn't been created just for you to listen to.

The Cascades is a beautiful instrumental that leads onto Lorelai, a softer, Summery track that might be more immediately accessible than the other tracks. However, it's ending leaves something more wanting and it's at this point in the album where you might start taking a step back from what you've heard and being caught up in the moment to wonder if it really is going to be perhaps the album of the year. Someone You'd Admire is again another work of beauty but feels more like an afterthought rather than a track in its own right.

The Shrine/An Argument is perhaps one of my favourite tracks on the album - it feels a lot more stronger and almost magical. It's the most progressive track on the album and delivers a sound that I feel would have been more suited to maintain throughout the album - an acknowledgement of their past success but something a bit darker and unique. It contains everything I love about Fleet Foxes and more and I think this track will be what people remember the most, not only due to it's 8 minute length (though by no means feels so long) and the variety of sounds - but because it's Fleet Foxes at their best and most mature. It even includes a strange saxophone/trumpet/something interlude that feels like elephants dying. Weird and slightly wanky.

Blue Spotted Tail is a simple vocals and guitar track from Robin Pecknold that sounds like it could come from a Kings of Convenience album without anyone noticing. Grown Ocean delivers that grand sound to leave the listener feeling as if he's wandering amongst the mountains through the huge forests that the music transports you to but always with a hook that keeps you coming back for a warm familiarity that Fleet Foxes do so well.

Rating: 9/10

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