French Version: http://humeursurmusiquemoderne.blogspot.com/2011/05/fleet-foxes-helplessness-blues-ou.html
In the sad musical landscape of our time, it is rare and remarkable to see a record to be worthwhile AND a commercial success. Worse! We hadn’t seen in a while a band capable of resisting and even humiliating a major label by refusing to sell its soul for dust money and cage bars. Yet, that’s what the Fleet Foxes did turning down a contract with Virgin and by admitting they own a part of their success (and of their audience) to illegal downloads. But who the hell are these Fleet Foxes, unknown three years ago and now acclaimed by critics and public? This is a band of six young men coming from Seattle, led by a charismatic singer and co-founder of the band, Robin Pecknold, and by Skyler Skjelset, other co-founder, guitarist and mandolinist.
Helplessness Blues is their 2nd record and almost two years have been necessary to give birth, in pain, to this magnificent piece of music. To get there, several recording sessions have been needed over a year as well as few health and personal issues. However, Pecknold says he wanted to keep spontaneity while recording the songs by proceeding in similar conditions to live performances conditions and this way accepting the presence of some errors. He wanted to preserve a certain sound coherence.
The album starts on some far guitar arpeggios and the voice enters with a strong reverb. We have the impression of listening a singer and its guitar, alone on stage. But then quickly, choirs start too and give event more depth to the whole. Finally, the bass and tambourines join everybody else. We are immediately immersed in this distant sound, as if it was talking to us from a different time, but everything sounds warm and nice despite the impression of depth and the pronounced reverb. The voice of Robin Pecknold is amazing and gives coherence to the whole sound while leading the music.
“Bedoin Dress” takes us on well known paths, remembering some of Simon & Garfunkel songs. However, the violin marks the difference with Celtic or medieval sonorities. Then the voices and instruments start and we slide in a bright neo folk warm and unpretentious. The arrangements are brilliant; the sound is perfect and full of relief with the reverb voices, the guitar are closer and all the rest is in-between. We can distinctly hear everything and it is pure magic. “Sim Sala Bim” begins also with arpeggios, a bit dissonant this time with sonorities reminding the Middle Ages again. This is confirmed when the tambourines enter along with the mandolin and harmonized voices. Then the guitar starts alone before exploding in a rhythmic solo invigorating and is quickly joined by the mandolin and tambourines. The calm comes back to go on again on “Battery Kinzie”, a simple but energetic song. We are in something more folk with a piano hammering the rhythmic and a melodic construction quite simple. However, we are still in something elaborated and nice. While listening to this album, I’ve been hit by the finesse of arrangements and melodic constructions. That makes you want to listen the songs again to understand them better but on the other hand, we are also immediately immersed and we love this music right away.
The quiet comes back with “The Plains/ Bitter Dancer”. We are on a music marking the tempo and supported by almost Indian sonorities due to the presence of the tambourine. The theme is growing little by little, harmonizing itself. These arrangements and sounds can remind us the great Sufjan Stevens. Everything calms down again to set place to the song. The theme is simple with several voices supported by acoustic guitars. For the first time in this album, all that oddly reminds the now old Crosby, Stills and Nash, the pioneer of the genre but we are far from a simple plagiarism. The track makes a break just before a new quiet explosion similar to those we’ve had so far. The song ends this way and set place, little by little, to the title of the album.
"Helplessness Blues" starts on a guitar rhythmic quite fast, quickly joined by the voice. The chorus sees a second voice entering and more guitars. The track is launched. The structure is pretty similar to the rest of the album’s tracks. This is a cheerful folk song, quite simple with two voices, two guitars and again a final explosion. I say explosion every time because I mean it. That’s really the impression given by the tambourine, cymbals and so on.
Some fast arpeggios and a theme made by the guitar and then harmonized by the mandolin start "The Cascades". Then come the usual tambourine and other bass and guitar before the calm comes back on an unresolved cord letting us on a tension, as if a question was being asked. The answer is brought by the drums introducing "Lorelai". The guitar enters with a repetitive theme before the song starts. Here is another nice pop-folk song even if the sound is a bit messy. However, the band catches up quickly by offering us a jewel with "Someone You’d Admire", a soft but poignant lament that Pecknold voices inhabits and haunts. We start simply on one guitar-voice before the second guitar-voice enters at the chorus one more time. The theme is absolutely magnificent and the harmonies complete it perfectly.
The following is quite surprising since we have an insight of what Robin Pecknold is really capable of vocally speaking. I must say that tour de force shows the extent of his talent. Indeed, if the arpeggios starting "The Shrine/ An Argument" don’t have anything surprising, we quickly realize we are in some more bluesy sounds than what we have been listening to so far. The theme, once again brilliant and complex, spreads up till the bridge where we can hear a pure bluesy and raucous scream immediately followed by something bright and soft. The alternation of shades is entirely led by Pecknold who shows us what he can do. After a first break, we go on something completely different, a new rhythm, a new tone, another theme and different arrangements, a new song so to speak… What is unusual in this neo folk album, it’s also the way some songs have to evolve in a surprising direction as it is the case here. Nothing is really linked to the first part of the song apart from the lyrics. We have the impression of an odd dream, impression accentuated by the sounds of the harmonium in the back and the voices still far away. The incoherence is pushed to the extreme in the conclusion of this title with the sounds of flayed brass mixed to sweet and melancholic strings arrangements along with a weird jerky rhythmic… This closes the surprising journey that has made us go through a wide range of different styles and musical horizons in a single track.
"The Blue Spotted Tail" which follows must be some kind of reward for the journey accomplished so far since we get in the end of Helplessness Blues. The reward is worth it since this is for me the most beautiful track of the record. For the first time, we stick to one guitar-voice all along the song and none of them has any reverb. They seem as close as a whisper and as soft as a summer breeze in the shadow of pines, somewhere in the Southern France. Pretty good…
The record ends on Growing Ocean, a fast song were we can find back the logic and sound of the rest of the titles.
So, what can we say in conclusion of this brilliant Helplessness Blues? First of all, that young bands are capable of a surprising maturity on every level (composition, arrangements, performance). Then that it is possible to resist the major labels and yet to be successful. Finally, we will maybe feel mixed on the several resemblances and influences we find here (Crosby, Stills and Nash, Simon & Garfunkel, the Beach Boys…); but even if these are well present, they almost never shadow the (strong) personality of this band and its record. Helplessness Blues is a very good record. I don’t know if it will be remembered, but it should make you feel quite good.