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Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes Print E-mail
Friday, 08 August 2008
ImageLargely a reaction against the beautiful and well-produced sounds of the ‘60s and ‘70s, punk rock championed the bad vocalist, giving highest priority to the integrity of the performance and generally equating good singing with selling out. The indie rock movement that was born from the ashes of punk rock largely continued that dictum, and the last 30 years have been filled with vocalists who were so blessed with the common touch that they could have been pulled off any street corner in the United States, with vocals that emphasized energy and idiosyncracies over the ability to stay in tune or produce a vocal range of more than three or four notes. But as the last 10 years have brought indie rock increasingly in line with mainstream aesthetics; powerhouse vocalists and better harmonies have come back into style, leading to a generation of bands that have been more interested in replicating the pristine vocals of the Beach Boys and the Zombies than the Fall. It’s possible that no band better exemplifies this trend than Fleet Foxes.

A band built around beautifully-crafted multi-layered vocals and folk-pop arrangements, the Seattle five-piece sits perfectly between the harmony-rich songwriting of classic Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and the more abstract work of bands such as Animal Collective. Opening track “Sun It Rises” is a perfect confluence of those influences, combining gorgeously sweeping harmonies with plinking banjo and sourly twirling guitar lines as the song swoons and stomps and slurs through a dizzying three minutes. Tinges of Led Zeppelin’s folky side can be heard on “Blue Ridge Mountains,” with lead vocalist Robin Pecknold creating a perfectly wounded counterpart to the bucolic tangle of thumping drums and plinking electric guitar runs. The flute-laden “Your Protector” even recalls Paul Simon’s early solo work, with echo-drenched vocals and ethereal trills creating the perfect backdrop for a tale of death and the uneasy promise of eventual reunion in the afterlife. Though they’re generally best served by ethereal and careful arrangements, they do impressively well with more aggressive rhythms such as those found on the galloping “Ragged Wood,” a track that deftly sways back and forth between softly finger-picked interludes and a breakaway hook. Immediately accessible, the beautifully swirling harmonies of “He Doesn’t Know Why” weave a jangly guitar and plopping piano hook around Pecknold’s soaring lead vocals, creating a song that could have fit snugly inside an album by the Left Banke. Therein lies an essential difference between Fleet Foxes and their freak-folk and neo-hippie associates, as there is nothing particularly granola about their writing and arranging aside from the focus on nature, death and rebirth. These men are pop craftsman first and foremost, and there are no moments of weirdness for weirdness’ sake, no moments of excess among their perfectly honed arrangements and hooks. From start to finish, this album is a study in exact control of the elements of otherworldly songwriting.

As brief moments of shape-noting singing on “Sun It Rises” and “White Winter Hymnal” prove, this is a band who know their folk music references. But those influences are only used as seasoning for songs that are, at heart, pop masterpieces more in line with the classic ‘60s studio auteurs than with their endlessly-hyphenated modern contemporaries. At no point does this album seem labored or studious, sounding as innately appealing and accessible on first listen as it does on the 15th, and it’s obvious they don’t have to put obscure melodic side roads or avant-garde obfuscations into their arrangements to keep them interesting.

What they do have is a remarkably self-assured and accomplished debut, the kind of release that sounds both effortlessly intuitive and painstakingly pieced together. Listeners looking for a sonic vacation should look no further, as this is one indie rock act that never sounds like the band next door.

Putting the focus squarely on the quintet’s vocals, the album sounds vintage but not cloyingly retro. Dominated by transcendently thundering drums, echoing harmonies and sinewy electric guitars, it’s an album that will require headphones or high-end equipment to pick out the subtle touches of banjo and tambourine under the layers of content. That said, it’s difficult to make this album sound bad no matter what equipment is being used, and cheap stereos will just make the album sound more overwhelming in its wall-of-sound massiveness.

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