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Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues -  Album Cover Artist:
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Fleet Foxes
Helplessness Blues
May 3, 2011

Three years since Fleet Foxes' EP Sun Giant and subsequent debut self-titled album garnered mass attention for their lyrical tenderness and soft vocal harmonies, which some say helped usher in a new wave of folk, they have returned to woo audiences with Helplessness Blues. Lead singer Robin Pecknold describes their style of music as a "synthesis of folk rock, traditional folk and psychedelic pop, with an emphasis on group vocal harmonies." While retaining the catchy pop hooks, pleasant overlapping of smooth vocals and invocations of natural scenery and sweeping expanses of land they are known for, these Foxes have evolved to add even more layers to their sound in their new album. Adding obscure musical instruments to their repertoire, like the hammered dulcimer, zither, marxophone and Tibetan singing bowls, this album hints of foreign lands and old-fashioned ways of living, especially with songs titles like "Montezuma" and "Bedouin Dress."

There's a sense of nostalgia flowing throughout the dozen-song long album, with 12-string guitars and tambouras recalling some far-away, picturesque scene where living close to nature is as natural as water running into a mountain stream. The first song alerts the listener to the Foxes' tender vision of humanity, and "Bedouin Dress" uses upright bass and fiddles to create a Pan-like harem party. "Sims Ala Bim," embarks on a calm journey of stringed instruments, and then cascades into an atmospheric waterfall, where the tamboura, energetic guitar and other eclectic instruments waver through lyrics of, "Then the earth shook, that was all it took for the dream to break." Then, "Lorelai," especially with its prominent wooden flute sounds like a romp through a meadow, or a sunny day on a grassy hill with a picnic basket. "The Plains/Bitter Dancer" uses the flute in a more contemplative and slightly remonstrative way, layered with many other gypsy-esque sounds that build and overlap like a handmade tapestry, asking questions of a son's duty, breaking down and building up to emerge cheerful, though dubious.

Though the six-person, almost fully bearded group has been accused of being "hippies," they deny this label, and employ lyrics that speak of dilemmas familiar to many modern souls, like the "struggle between who you are and who you want to be or who you want to end up." This is how Pecknold describes the general theme of the album. And the song with the album's namesake captures this best, where Pecknold sings, "I was raised to believe in I was somehow unique, like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes… and now after some thinking, I'd rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me, but I don't know what that will be. I'll get back to you someday soon, you will see." This album is a search for a place in the complex world of modern society with a strong hearkening back to less hectic, less overwrought times. The Fleet Foxes juxtapose natural imagery and modern mindsets often, touching on the rampant feelings of disappointed young adults raised to believe they're special and left confused. "Helplessness Blues" ends with a yearning for hard work and simplicity, "If I had an orchard, I'd work 'til I'm sore, and you would wait tables and soon run the store." Though they've achieved great success in the folk world, their lyrics convey not a desire for fame, but a heartfelt search for some genuine contentment.

"Battery Kinzie" is optimistic, very hopeful, like a song you would want to wake up to. The vocal tones fluctuate up and down, with drumbeats for emphasis and an overall quality of joy. "Someone You'd Admire" uses a simpler style of folk guitar and vocals, more like the first album, but this is an outlier. Even the slower song, "The Shrine/The Argument," interrupts a placid lyrical lake with distorted noise, and contrasts themes of ancient mysticism with a modern family argument in a driveway, the song changing tempo halfway through to mark the transition.

Though the album is called Helplessness Blues, it's not quite sad. The blues are not overwhelmingly blue, and the album seems like one big question of how to exist right here, right now, while entertaining dreams of elsewhere. "Blue spotted tail" asks explicitly, "Why in the night sky are the lights hung? Why is the earth moving 'round the sun?" This is the second to last song in the set, and right after, "Grown Ocean" marches the album out with dreamlike, eruptive drums, background harmonizing and reprieves of lightly dancing stringed tones. The album may not answer the question, but it is a finely layered musical exploration and thoughtful coming-together of an attempt at some understanding.

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Reviewer Bio - Nancy Woo, managing editor at OnlineRock, studied Sociology, Literature and Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz. A self-described "bohemian of sorts" she spends most of her time listening to music, reading, writing, freelancing in the world of journalism, tutoring writing, running, practicing yoga, attending live music and theater shows.


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