james debate
james debate

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Genre Folk, Baroque Pop
Label Sub Pop
Producer Phil Ek
Release Date May 3rd

fleet foxes helplessness blues album review

There will always be talk of the perilous sophomore album. Many formidable bands have struggled under the weight of expectation that a massively successful debut can engender; do you attempt to recapture the magic of the first album and risk being branded a one-note wonder, or try to evolve the sound and risk alienating the fans? It's a delicate position to be in.

With their followup album Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes have attempted to harness the best of both worlds, striking a note that will be familiar to existing fans, while also treading new ground. Indeed, considering the number of musicians who have tried to copy the Fleet Foxes style since they first broke onto the scene in 2008, it is a tribute to the band's creativity that this album still sounds completely unique and distinct. Pretenders take note, the masters of the folk-rock revival have returned.

The opening track Montezuma establishes the thematic context that pervades the entire album; feelings of existential uncertainty and regret, of lapsed potential and that crunch moment where the young man must become an adult, and turn childhood ambition into reality.

Bedouin Dress laments the debt of youth at a moment when one seeks the enamor of a settled life, while struggling with wistful longing for the safety of childhood fantasy. Musically the track draws heavily on the nostalgic instrumentalisation of Simon & Garfunkel, nagging strings driving home the frustration of a narrator on the precipice.

We are given a dose of vintage Fleet Foxes in Battery Kinzie, a track full of pomp and newfound energy which changes the dynamic from despair and anxiety in the first third of the album to a sound more of confidence and determination. Lyrically the song focuses more specifically on the regret of past failed romances, to which the narrator responds with resolve to atone and make amends.

Next we have the title track, Helplessness Blues which appropriately epitomises the narrative thread of searching for identity and societal placement which weaves throughout the album, now with the redoubtable spirit and determination to address these challenges. The music harkens back to the rhythm and harmony laden grooves of White Winter hymnal from the band's debut album, with an additional coda serving as a dreamy reminder of deeper desires for peace and stability buried beneath this fa├žade. This is certainly one of the finest moments the band has yet produced, and one of the best amalgamations of the best elements of folk and rock that I've heard.

The album relents somewhat in the final third, beginning with Someone You'd Admire, a melancholy track in which the narrator seems to admit defeat in his desire to become that which is described in the song title. Despite his best efforts, he is a slave to his true nature. Serene harmonies and the dulcet acoustic melody present a bittersweet note of futile acceptance through what some might expect to be a moment of despair.

What follows is one of the stronger moments on the album. The Shrine/An Argument is an 8 minute epic in which we follow our narrator as he sinks deeper and more openly into despair. The song is easily the most raw and dirty that we've heard from Fleet Foxes, with arguably the best vocal performance we've seen yet from vocalist Robin Pecknold.

The bleak Blue Spotted Tail is the most low-fi track on the album, featuring only the faintest of acoustic picks and soft vocals. Here a more at ease voice opines a brief tone of peace through acceptance.

We finish on a somewhat more optimistic and sweet note with closing song Grown Ocean. A suddenly more upbeat pace is offset by Beach Boys style backing vocals and hopeful musings of the future. Constantly we hear reference to the "dream", one which despite setback and bleak outlook, our narrator still believes he will one day achieve.

When Fleet Foxes' debut was released three years ago praise was near universal, with some even hailing them as the new Simon & Garfunkel. Well with this release those claims are only likely to increase in clamour.

Helplessness Blues shows exactly how a second album should be done, with the musical sensibilities and creative nuance retained from the debut, and imbued with a far more ambitious thematic and narrative context. The follow up improves upon the original in pretty much every way, and confirms that Fleet Foxes are here to stay.

Must Listen
Helplessness Blues

Someone You'd Admire

The Shrine/An Argument

Grown Ocean

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