by Lindsay Eanet
Scruff-laden hippies rejoice, for the future of music is once again in your hands.
While the frenetic blips of Cut Copy and Crystal Castles may have their place, a new wave of indie bands (Yeasayer, Blitzen Trapper, Iron & Wine) have emerged with an earthier sound and earnest lyrics, bands that are more organic than mechanic, more coffee house than Euro-disco.
But vocal prowess alone sets Seattle folk quintet Fleet Foxes apart from their flannel-wearing, non-face-shaving peers. Frontman Robin Pecknold wears his inspiration from Neil Young on his sleeve as he leads the group in warm, delicate harmonies reminiscent of gems like “Helpless” and “Carry On” from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s heyday.
In a way, Fleet Foxes’ gorgeous self-titled debut is a cross-country nature trek, all at once a wonderful recreation and elaboration of the folk and Americana that came before it and a picture of the country’s purple mountain majesties, fruited plains and redwood forests (if you’ll pardon the puns).
The opening track, “Sun It Rises,” begins with a woozy bit of a cappella hollering, creating the atmosphere of a moonlit back porch sing-a-long somewhere in Appalachia. This works as an appropriate precursor to Pecknold’s breathy vocals and Skyler Skjelset’s spacious guitar work, gradually swelling and ascending like a mountain trek with the introduction of a simple but powerful electric riff. Then, all of the sudden, we are left with just the vocals, the breathtaking view from the summit, left with the peaceful, uncluttered natural beauty of the harmony.
The vivid lyrics of “White Winter Hymnal” evokes images of strawberry fields and wanderers in snowy woods straight out of Robert Frost, with Pecknold backing off to give the instrumentalists some breathing room to shine over a simple “ooo-ooo” refrain. The effect is haunting, but not unsettling—in fact, the opposite—the simple percussion from Nicholas Peterson and Skjelset’s strumming give the track a layer of brightness.
Peterson becomes the driving force on the first half of “Ragged Wood,” picking up the pace as the subject matter turns from winter to spring as Pecknold urges his love to come. The track bustles with an energy that feels more city than country (Peterson also drives the more subdued “Quiet Houses” later on in the album, a nice but nondescript deep cut), but the transitions remain smooth into Skjelset’s solo and more CSNY-style harmonies, here a dead ringer for the slow parts of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.”
The delicate, twisting guitar lines close in around Pecknold’s voice like a dense forest on “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” for the timid, haunting first half, until he breaks free and shows us what his voice is capable of. When he sings the refrain of “I don’t know what I have done/I’m turning myself to a demon,” the vulnerability is almost killer.
Fleet Foxes are unafraid to try instruments outside of their typical bill-of-fare. The intricately layered “Your Protector” stomps and swirls with ska guitars and flute, proving that complex works just as well as simple for the group. The tinkling piano riff on “Blue Ridge Mountains” shows skilled use of an instrument the group uses sparingly, but well. The song itself is simultaneously a sweeping journey through the countryside and an intimate saga of two brothers, an American short story within the confines of a song.
Simplicity rules again on the simple closing track, “Oliver James,” a picturesque story-song, a portrait of a family dealing with loss. It seems to be the recurring theme in both contact and style for Fleet Foxes, a desire to get back to their roots and make music that is, like a quiet field or a mountain range, naturally and breathtakingly beautiful.