First Impressions: Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes

With a title like Helplessness Blues, you wouldn’t expect uplift from Fleet Foxes’ second full-length album. But you’d be wrong. In spite of the yearning sense of spiritual quest and loss in the lyrics, these songs soar. Exquisite harmonies (equal parts English folk, Appalachia, shape note singing, and 1960s folk-pop) rise above chiming/droning acoustic guitars, or simple piano figures. They manage to sound both delicate and baroque – a difficult trick to pull off.

The wistful “Montezuma” is a beautiful start to the album, a rapidly picked guitar and a delicate yearning vocal, soon joined by soaring background “ohs” and “ahs” – setting the template for much of this release.

Some of the loveliest moments occur when instruments drop out, leaving only intertwining voices.  This happens in the purest moment of English folk on the album, the middle of the suite “The Shrine/An Argument” (albeit with what sounds like Northumbrian pipes underneath).  A similar approach beautifully marks the passage from one movement to another in the suite “The Plains/Bitter Dancer.”

While people often focus (appropriately) on the vocal approach, there are two other keys to Fleet Foxes’ sound. One is percussion. They often use only one or two elements of the drum kit (if they even use a kit – I’m seeing them live in two weeks and will find out what they actually use) so a song may feature just a couple of toms and a bit of high hat, or bass drum and tambourine. “Battery Kinzie” is a great example with a rollicking bass drum and high hat.

The other is their approach to acoustic instruments, a layered and chiming approach. It’s here that the English folk feel is most noticeable. These boys have listened to Led Zeppelin III more than once! The title track, as well as highlighting Robin Pecknold’s beautiful lyrics, captures some of these styles, as does the beginning of the aforementioned “The Shrine/The Argument” and the end of “Sim Sala Bim.”

Following the quiet questing folk song “Blue Spotted Tail,” the romping “Grown Ocean” brings the album to an uplifting close with chiming acoustic guitars over a stomping bass drum, and classic soaring wordless background vocals.

No sophomore mistakes here. This music makes me feel like I’m lying on my back in a rain forest, overwhelmed by the power of nature (the size of the trees, the way their tops disappear from view, the abundance of vegetation) while also completely at peace (stunned by the silence that allowed me to hear every drop of moisture).

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