Review: “Helplessness Blues” Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes trot towards mediocrity on their sophomore release.

Review: “Helplessness Blues” Fleet Foxes

Photo Courtesy Sub Pop Records

Raghav Mehta

 

âÄúHelplessness BluesâÄù

Artist: Fleet Foxes

Label: Sup Pop Records

2008 was a dull time for indie rock. It was a year fraught with lackluster follow-ups and flavor-of-the-week throwaways. Conor OberstâÄôs much-anticipated self-titled was divisive, The Hold SteadyâÄôs âÄúStay PositiveâÄù was just passable and BeckâÄôs âÄúModern GuiltâÄù was âÄî well, it was OK. Maybe it was the global panic of the financial crisis or maybe the presidential election was just too much of a distraction. Whatever the reason, it seemed like all the worldâÄôs talent decided to phone it in in âÄô08.

But Seattle folk troupe Fleet Foxes didnâÄôt get the memo.

Met with nearly unanimous critical acclaim upon its release, their debut self-titled soared above all the ubiquitous mediocrity that seemed to be emanating from every corner of the indie world that year.

Fleet Foxes hadnâÄôt really done anything remarkably different with their music, but thatâÄôs exactly what was so appealing about it. Produced by famed Built to Spill handyman Phil Ek, the songs were no-frills folk numbers that harkened back to some of AmericaâÄôs earliest musical traditions.

It was an album that sounded entirely fresh and new but unmistakably familiar at the same time âÄî a musical anachronism of sorts. Three years later, with their sophomore follow-up âÄúHelplessness BluesâÄù less than a week away from its release date, it seems all that adulation has yet to wear off.

If Fleet FoxesâÄô debut was a celebration of youthful exuberance, then âÄúHelplessness BluesâÄù marks their calculated transition into maturity. Early on, singer and guitarist Robin Pecknold sings, âÄúIf to borrow is to take and not return/I have borrowed all my lonesome life/And no I canâÄôt, I canâÄôt get through/The borrowers debt is the only regret of my youth.âÄù

That line alone might sound downtrodden, but all of that existential anxiety is edged with a coming-of-age humility.

In the title track, Pecknold confesses, âÄúAnd now after some thinking/IâÄôd say IâÄôd rather be/a functioning cog in some great machinery/serving something beyond me.âÄù

Much like their debut, the bandâÄôs penchant for harmony acts as the driving force behind most of the record. But their pop sensibilities take a backseat as they expand on their woodsy aesthetic, pursuing grander arrangements all to varying degrees of success.

While songs like âÄúBedouin DressâÄù and âÄúLorelaiâÄù are set list shoo-inâÄôs, epic two-parters like âÄúThe Plains/Bitter DancerâÄù lull aimlessly with little reward in the end. A similar misstep occurs with the eight-minute âÄúThe Shrine/An Argument.âÄù

Peaking mid-song, the energy rapidly dissipates, closing with a discordant saxophone that squalls atop brooding strings and distant splashes of cymbals. But the songs donâÄôt rouse âÄî they falter and drag.

The ambition is worthy of praise, but the tracks could benefit if someone simply swept off all the studio table scraps that theyâÄôre left littered with.

âÄúHelplessness BluesâÄù has its moments, but aside from its blistering closer, all of the high points pale in comparison to its predecessor. Even on âÄúSomeone YouâÄôd Admire,âÄù which reminds us how compelling Pecknold can sound when left with just the barest of musical essentials, the songwriting falls short of greatness.

Fleet FoxesâÄô faithful listeners will certainly find plenty to latch on to despite the creative slump. Nonetheless, it is disappointing to see one of indie rockâÄôs most talented group of musicians digressing to the very thing they were originally lauded for rising above: mediocrity.

 

2.5 out of 4 stars