First listen: Fleet Foxes ‘Helplessness Blues’

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Helplessness Blues, the second full-length album from Fleet Foxes, is a record full of pleasant surprises.

The addition of multi-instrumentalist Morgan Henderson, the band’s newest member, is a pleasant surprise. It’s pleasantly surprising that the record is better than anything the group has previously done and perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that I really, really enjoy Helplessness Blues.

Allow me to qualify that last statement. It’s not that I didn’t think I would enjoy the album and it’s not that I don’t enjoy Fleet Foxes. I was just never in the Fleet Foxes fanboy society and by nature I tend to be skeptical of hype and buzz, so the combination of Sub Pop making a massive push for the album and the large amounts of critical acclaim the record has received before its May 3 release date (the band is on the cover of this month’s Spin magazine) made me a bit apprehensive. But after spending a good part of my weekend with an official copy of Helplessness Blues I can safely say my apprehensions are gone because this record is one of the best albums of the year so far and it will definitely be a tough one for the Fleet foxes to top.

Here are a few of my initial impressions and some notes about Fleet Foxes’ surprisingly superb (to me) sophomore LP:

  • The band’s trademark multi-part harmonies are all over the album, so if you were expecting the Fleet Foxes to stray from what’s become their calling card in order to avoid the sophomore slump you’re going to be disappointed. Also, like the band’s prior releases the record is very much a mostly acoustic, folk-inspired album. So no, the Foxes didn’t pull a Dylan at Newport this time around although there are several instances where slide guitar comes into play (“Grown Ocean,” “Bedouin Dress”) so a small country influence is heard.
  • Henderson makes his presence felt on the record’s most impressive track “The Shrine/An Argument” with a clarinet breakdown during the song’s second half. On first listen it sort of reminded me of Hazards of Love era Decemberists in that the two-part song pretty much takes a left turn and enters unexpected territory and does so without being ruining the song and becoming a case of a band taking itself too seriously. It’s nice to hear the Fleet Foxes take risks because they likely could’ve just pushed a record that sounds similar to Sun Giant or their self-titled release and done pretty well. Instead you can tell on this record, and this song in particular, that the band challenged itself in the studio and while the results could polarize part of its fanbase it shows lots of growth and potential  for the future of Fleet Foxes.
  • There’s an instrumental track called “The Cascades” that is perfectly nested near the middle of the record. It’s a tad longer than two minutes which is just the right amount of time needed to take a break from the band’s gorgeous harmonies before digging back in to digest the rest of the album.
  • Opening track “Montezuma” and “Lorelai” are two of the songs I think sound the most similar to past Fleet Foxes output. Elsewhere on the album “Bedouin Dress” has a nice fiddle part, which is an instrument I’m surprise hasn’t popped up in previous Foxes records and there’s quite a bit of woodwind action happening thanks to Henderson with flute and clarinet parts on other songs. Other instruments of note that are on the record include a hammered dulcimer, tympani, vibraphone and a Moog synthesizer. The Moog is hidden well because I couldn’t hear it, but according to singer Robin Pecknold it’s there.
  • The tail end of album-closer “Grown Ocean” shows that the band can still effectively evoke Crosby, Stills & Nash.
  • Lyrically the record loosely carries a theme of  the protagonists of Pecknold’s songs struggling with who they are and who they want to be. This is most evident on the record’s title track (which you can download here) where Pecknold romanticizes a simple life consisting of hard work done in an orchard and being with a woman who works as a waitress.
  • The liner notes are a massive fold-out poster with the cover art on one side and a list of thank yous in big print on the other side. Notable names on the thank yous include the typical Sub Pop folks (Megan Jasper, Jonathan Poneman, Kate Jackson), producer Phil Ek, Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste, Low, Joana Newsom and Blitzen Trapper. Some local bands get shout outs too including Pearly Gates Music (Fleet Foxes’ J Tillman’s little brother’s band) and Thousands. The liner notes also reinforce the band’s connection to nature and the region with lots of outdoors-y Northwest locations getting thanks for their hospitality including Port Townsend, the San Juan Islands, the North Cascades and Guerrilla Candy’s former stomping grounds of Wenatchee.

 

Travis Hay

About Travis Hay

Travis Hay is a professional music journalist who has spent the past 13 years documenting and enjoying Seattle's diverse music scene. In 2009 he established Guerrilla Candy and is currently the site's editor and publisher. He has written for various media outlets including MSN Music, the Seattle-Post Intelligencer, Seattle Weekly, Crosscut.com and others and was the founder and former editor of the defunct music site Ear Candy.