Fleet Foxes’ debut album was one of the most over-rated records for me of 2008. Only a handful of tracks really made an impact, with 'White Winter Hymnal' (downloadable for free from Sub Pop) the clear standout. It became one of those records people with little or no interest in music would mention to try to display some form of knowledge of the ‘current scene’. Some have even blamed the group for encouraging the ‘folk pop revival’ scene dominated by the aural tyranny of Mumford & Sons.
All these reasons are why their second record, 'Helplessness Blues' is such a pleasant surprise. It’s a majestic, beautiful album and a leading contender for record of the year. It separates them from bands they are often categorised with, showing a greater depth and understanding of their inspirations such as Crosby, Stills and Nash, The Byrds, Elliott Smith and the Beach Boys.
The difficulties regarding the gestation of the record have been reported widely and I won’t go into detail here. Suffice to say, the band had a collection of songs ready for release last year but these were either scrapped or re-recorded as they didn’t seem quite right to band leader, Robin Pecknold. This attention to detail is very audible and reflected in the intricacy of the arrangements, which allow the songs room to float along gracefully.
'Montezuma' starts the album off in fine fashion, a lovely, meditative song which effectively eases the listener into the record. It displays all the merits of 'Helplessness Blues' – beautiful arrangements, ghostly, classic choral esque harmonies and clever dynamics. The instrumentation is marvellous throughout, which varies from clarinet solos through to violins, dulcimers and mandolins. The violin melody is 'Bedouin Dress' is particularly stunning.
There is greater ambition in the record signified by the eight-minute epic that is 'The Shrine/An Argument'. Its varied, experimental structures and use of different styles show a band which has truly matured and it’s to the band’s credit it never feels self-congratulatory. Lyrically, the album is a step-up as well, as Pecknold deliberates on his place and role in the universe.
In 'Montezuma', Pecknold asks "So now, I am older/ Than my mother and father/ When they had their daughter/ Now, what does that say about me?", while in the excellent title track he sings "I was raised up believing I was somehow unique/ Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes/ And now after some thinking I'd say I'd rather be/ A functioning cog in some great machinery".
The release of 'Helplessness Blues' is perfectly timed – it’s an album you want to listen to in the spring sunshine and get lost within. A triumph.
MP3 DOWNLOAD: Fleet Foxes - 'Grown Ocean'
MP3 DOWNLOAD: Fleet Foxes - 'Helplessness Blues'
Downloads courtesy of Sub Pop, who are releasing the record in the US. Purchase 'Helplessness Blues' at your local retailer, iTunes, Amazon.co.uk etc.