Monday, June 6, 2011

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 109 - Fleet Foxes

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

Sometimes it's fun to go and read music reviews that attempt to play the [Influence A]+[Influence B]=[Current Group of the Week] game. I know from experience that it's difficult to convey what music sounds like through a short critical review, but sometimes I feel that the critics go too far in grasping for comparisons. It's also an easy way to avoid talking about the actual music; I remember when I wrote about Interpol, wading through scores of reviewers arguing over how much of a debt that the band owed to Joy Division. 

Enter the critical reactions to Fleet Foxes. Admittedly, with a band like this, it's fun to play Name the Influence. But there's a point where the equations grow too complex to adequately describe anything. Pretty soon, you're reading about how the band represents something like "Brian Wilson meets Harvest-era Neil Young, with a twist of the Zombies and a dash of Bob Dylan and maybe some Crosby Stills & Nash but not too much." This might all be true, but you could just as easily say that the Fleet Foxes have adopted their own distinct musical style. 

Ultimately, I've found, learning to be a music snob requires learning this sort of language, and quickly being able to grasp what is meant when the critics inevitably bring up Byrds-style guitar work or Pixies-loud-soft-dynamics. The terms aren't necessarily bullshit, and the influences are certainly real. But there's a fine line between using a musical shorthand and completely dropping the ball on even trying to describe the music in question. 

Fleet Foxes sounds refreshingly original, at least to my ears. Sure, there's plenty of influences that you can cherrypick, and the band seems well-versed in the history of 60s rock. But the band combines their influences in such a way as to develop their own aesthetic. Spotting Their Predecessors might make for a fun party game, but it's a bit fruitless to try and describe music in this way. 

WEEK 109


WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: Admittedly, I'd listened to pretty much all of the Fleet Foxes' discography before this week. But I was coming off a vacation, and feeling too lazy to track down something new to me, so I hope you'll cut me some slack. 

MY LISTENING: I listened to Fleet Foxes (2008) every day this week. I also listened to the recent release Helplessness Blues (2011) three times, and the Sun Giant EP (2008) twice. 


I guess, in some respects, the Fleet Foxes are the latest indie critical darlings, but their music has a certain timeless quality to it. Rather than trying to jump on the latest trends, a lot of their songs sound like they've been floating around the Appalachian Mountains for generations. Hell, the first song from their first album, "Sun It Rises," begins with an a cappella hymn-like tune, like you've stumbled into some 19th-century church in the boonies. (The eponymous first song on Sun Giant begins similarly).

The songs also sound delightfully simple, which disguises the immaculate, pitch-perfect vocal harmonies that are featured on almost every track. "White Winter Hymnal," one of the band's first singles, is a good example of this kind of timeless, harmony-heavy track, while "Blue Ridge Mountains" is a slightly more rock-oriented one whose title betrays one of the band's inspirations.

I think the best part of the Fleet Foxes is that they demonstrate not only impeccable songwriting skills, but good instincts in how to build these songs. Take "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song," which is a beautiful track constructed with only the most basic elements. Or another mountain-oriented track, "The Cascades," a simple instrumental piece. These work, but it doesn't necessarily mean this would work for every song. In other tracks, especially on the recent Helplessness Blues, all sorts of weird instruments are thrown in. (When's the last time you listened to an album with a Marxophone? Tibetan singing bowls?)

So we also have songs like the central showpiece of Helplessness Blues, "The Shrine/An Argument" and the closer "Grown Ocean," which throw in all sorts of strange instruments. But these are used in such a idiosyncratic manner, and most come across so subtly, that it doesn't feel like the band is grabbing weird sounds willy-nilly, but that they fretted for hours choosing the exact instrument that would fit in this one song. Despite Robin Pecknold's claim that he wanted an album that "sounds like there were only six hours in the universe for that album to be recorded in," Helplessness Blues features songs that feel like the band took a lot of time making sure every piece fit together just so. This is not a bad thing at all, but instead makes for some wonderfully warm and intricate pieces. 


Okay, the harmonies are impressive, but they get old pretty soon, on Fleet Foxes especially. Songs like "Ragged Wood," "Quiet Houses," and "Meadowlarks" are fine, but they aren't as catchy as some of the band's best stuff, and often feel like ways for the group to show off all their "ooh-ing" and "ahh-ing" in different harmonic combinations. By Helplessness Blues, the band learned to use their vocal harmonies as a strength, not a crutch, but perhaps it took a little time to learn that lesson. 

Other than that, I have very little to complain about; Fleet Foxes make some damn good albums that read like cohesive artistic statements. Anything else I complained about would be nitpicking. 

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: Good question. I think the only official release I have yet to listen to would be the Fleet Foxes EP (2006), which got them discovered in the first place. I would like to see the band live some day, and see how they tackle the vocal harmonies and weird instruments in a performance setting. 



NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: The Flaming Lips