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Project 52 ’11 21: Helplessness Blues

July 8, 2011

Hurray! Project 52 ’11 has come of age and reached the big two-one. I know I’m quite behind with posting, (five behind, in fact) but I am working on it. The trouble is that a little thing called life just keeps getting in the way and making it difficult for me to find the time to write. I do have several ideas in the pipe-line though, and I hope to be able to keep a more regular stream of posting from now on. Happily, life sometimes throws things at me that give me something to write about. On Thursday 23rd, my sister and I went to see Fleet Foxes on their tour for their May-released Helplessness Blues album. This post is a review of both the concert and the album.

Fleet Foxes, for those not in the know, are a folk band hailing from Seattle fronted by Robin Pecknold. I first heard them on the radio sometime in the Summer of 2008 when a song called White Winter Hymnal was played and I instantly fell in love with the choral style and the beautiful harmonies. I made a note of the band name and promised to follow up on what I had heard. I kept hearing snatches of songs here and there: they would be playing as I walked around a shop or occasionally on the radio. Eventually I made good on my promise and at Christmas dropped a load of hints to the housemate who was my secret Santa. Sure enough, a copy of Fleet Foxes’ self-titled first album was awaiting me when we swapped presents. There aren’t many years that I can define by sound, but 2009 will always sound like Fleet Foxes to me. The album was superb and I must have played it dozens and dozens of times. When I heard that a second album was being released, I preordered the special edition of it and hoped that the band would not be struck down with second album syndrome, and produce a disappointing return.

When I ordered the album I opted for the more expensive deluxe option which meant I had a copy on CD, 12″ vinyl and a code to access a digital download, all of which came beautifully presented with several stickers, pull-outs and posters to make the expense worth while. I’m a great believer in the digital download, but I am also interested in having a hard copy of the music I own. Couple this with an obsession for collecting vinyl old and new, and the deluxe option is usually the one which I’m best suited to however much my pocket complains.

The album opens with Montezuma and any fears that Fleet Foxes would have faltered at a second album are immediately allayed. The lyric writing is more mature than the first album and quite beautiful, and all the harmonies which I wanted them to use are still there in abundance. If anything, their sound has gotten larger and Montezuma is a good statement of intent for the rest of the album. That said, it doesn’t really go anywhere and before you know it, you are on the second track.

The second track, Bedouin Dress, does go somewhere. Innisfree, to be precise. This lead me to suspect that someone in the band (if not Pecknold himself) is quite well read as the only time I have ever heard of Innisfree is in a W. B. Yeats poem called Lake Isle of Innisfree. The song ties in quite well (I thought) with the poem’s ideas of escapism and peace. They mention Innisfree later in The Shrine / Argument, and I can’t help but feeling that this recurrent theme is one of the linchpins of the album. Either that or they ran out of places with three syllables to mention. Again the harmonies are rich and full and the instrumental sound is more developed. The song sounds complete and even stand-alone as though it might be used as a single later on. It was very hard to fault the song live and the band managed to play it perfectly without being bland.

Thirdly, Sim Sala Bim really demonstrates the way in which the song writing has matured whilst the band has managed to keep their core sound intact. The track has both loud and quiet moments which lead to a fast-paced, upbeat guitar reel towards the end of the track that was perfect for getting the crowd motivated and moving when they played it live. During Sim Sala Bim, they were able to expertly display their instrument-playing credentials and to show they are more than just an album band, but a band who can really cut it live.

Battery Kinzie is one of my favourite songs on the album and indeed was a really good track live. The opening of the song demonstrates a hardening of the lyrics and they start in a way I just can’t imagine being on the first album (“I woke up one morning / All my fingers rotting / I woke up a dying man, without a chance”). The song itself is simple enough and quite short and abrupt (it’s the second shortest song on the album) but its lyrical content more than makes up for any lack of musical length.

Fifth on the album is The Plains / Bitter Dancer. I can’t tell when one part of the song ends and another begins. Is it when the lyrics start, or later when the track seemingly stops, introduces a new strain of lyrics and then builds before finally concluding to fade? No matter, the track is very well-worked and has a complete sound. It is unmistakably an album track, but it is in no way filler and I could happily listen to it as a stand-alone track on a mix CD

Next is the title track Helplessness Blues. I love this song. Live, I was transfixed and enrapt by the whole thing – I can’t fault it anywhere. The way it builds, the way it falls, the choral elements, the harmonies, the lyrics and the music – all of it is brilliant. Its upbeat nature made it the perfect end to the show and ensured that the evening finished on a positive note. The band really harmonised well on stage and demonstrated that Pecknold is not the only one in the band who has good range. Fleet Foxes really have shown that they are a band who can really put a complex song together and to make it work in a mature way and to produce real results.

Cascades is the seventh track on the album, but it made for a suitable opening to the gig as it is an instrumental track. Like the rest of the album, it is complex and well worked though when I first heard it I was expecting singing to start at any moment. I suppose having a little time before diving into the first proper song gave the band time to prepare, judge the room and to generally warm up before their performance. Still, I can’t help but feel that this song has more potential and it sounds a little stunted to me.

Lorelai is an upbeat, summery track featuring a twangy refrain which punctuates throughout. I don’t remember it being played live but I don’t think the set lost anything by its absence. This doesn’t mean Lorelai is a poor song, it just means that Fleet Foxes have such a strong repertoire of material to choose from that they swap good songs around from concert to concert.

Someone You Admire is a simple song, relying heavily on choral harmonies backed by simple acoustic guitar strains. Once again the lyrics are sophisticated and thoughtful.

The Shrine / An Argument is the song which most confused me on the album. The start is beautiful and diverse – it especially demonstrates the power Pecknold has in his voice as well as its tonal qualities and shows that he has range beyond whispery, quiet folk. The song builds over time in well-worked sections which hang together very well musically. Half way through the song breaks down (presumably this is the second part of the song commencing) only to build again to a free-jazz, experimental saxophone solo. I hate jazz and was dismayed at this awful-sounding mess on what had up to that point been quite a good song. I felt like it had been tacked on to the end of the song without purpose. The song didn’t make sense to me at all and I thought Fleet Foxes had had a rare lapse in judgement. Live, however, my opinion of the track was completely different. The song somehow works with its two clashing halves. I think the anticipation of whether or not they would actually play the complex saxophone solo made the song for me and I now appreciate it on a new level. The solo, even though it sounds random and dissonant on the album, sounds exactly the same live which can only mean one thing – that it is meant to sound that way and the instrument is not just been hammered at by some chancer. The skill of the player is really demonstrated.

If I had to pick a favourite song on the album, I might have to pick the penultimate song, Blue Spotted Tail. I was really hoping that they would play this one as I had thought it beautiful in its simplicity when I had heard it. Like all modern bands, Fleet Foxes played the excellent Blue Ridge Mountains from their first album, left the stage and had the audience clap and cheer for a while before returning to play a few more songs. To my delight, Pecknold came on stage alone with an acoustic guitar and treated us to Blue Spotted Tale, followed by another favourite from the first album, Oliver James. If there was an off note or a poorly strummed cord in these two songs, I didn’t hear them. I’d probably deny that I had anyway. This was my favourite part of the whole performance and Pecknold not only held me spellbound, but every member of the sell-out crowd. Truly one of the best live music experiences of my life. It only then remained for the concert to be rounded off by the aforementioned Helplessness Blues.

The last song on the album is Grown Ocean. It is another up-tempo track with an air of hopefulness about it and it made for the perfect second live track after the instrumental Cascades before they calmed things down with Drops in the River from their EP (I’m glad they played songs from all their releases as we were treated to such songs as Mykonos from the EP and White Winter Hymnal, Tiger Mountain Peasant Song and Your Protector from the first album). In fact, it was the perfect way to ease the crowd into the atmosphere of the performance and to demonstrate to us that the voice we were used to hearing on the album was the same voice we were about to enjoy live. I can’t help but feeling that its position on the album clashes slightly with Blue Spotted Tail and takes away from the winding down effect that the track has. Perhaps the band wanted to end on an up-beat song and so they should, because this album has been nothing but a triumph for me and the tour has not disappointed or failed to live up to the recorded performances. Overall the album holds together very well (even though I thought the end was a little oddly ordered) and Fleet Foxes have produced an album which not only replicates what made their first album great but also adds to their abilities as song writers and song builders.

If there is one criticism to be made of the live performance, it is that there was very little crowd interaction. My local paper said the pace was a little slow, but I disagree. The pace perfectly suited the band’s music and the mood of the crowd. This wasn’t a raucous, rock and roll gig, after all. A brilliant piece of crowd interaction that did occur caught my eye as the band were leaving the stage. Some member of the audience took a chance and threw what looked to be a CD onto the stage. I’m guessing this was some struggling band’s demo or EP and that they are trying to get themselves noticed. Instead of ignoring this like a lot of bands and artists would have done, Pecknold stopped, picked up the CD and then thanked the audience member who had thrown it. I can’t think of a better example of how to keep grounded despite having two successful albums and being on an international tour. To me, it shows that the band is still in touch with its audience; humble, grateful and mindful of where they have come from and the struggles they and indeed any band have to go through before they finally make it. It also shows how taking a chance can really pay off if that chance is aimed at the right people.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 9, 2011 12:15 pm

    Nice review. You know how much I love Fleet Foxes, but then you’ll also know how lazy I am, hence I still haven’t sampled the second album! Think I may have to now. Do you think they have moved in a more commercial direction with this release?

    • paulgallear permalink
      July 9, 2011 6:52 pm

      Thanks : ) I thought it was a little directionless and rambling myself.

      I wouldn’t say it was more commercial but it’s definitely a fuller, better-produced sound. Worth spending a fiver or so downloading it if you liked the first album.

  2. paulgallear permalink
    July 25, 2011 10:16 pm

    I have no idea what you mean by this, so I’m taking it as a compliment.

  3. July 30, 2011 5:17 pm

    nice! thanks for sharing!

    -debi intha
    spread the love…

    • paulgallear permalink
      July 31, 2011 7:54 pm

      Thank you for reading. Glad you liked it

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