BEST OF 2011: 21. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

Although my enjoyment was somewhat restricted by the good lady’s bout of food poisoning, what I caught of Fleet Foxes at Green Man was enough to demonstrate that they’re a cracking live band. But, and I like to think I haven’t formed this opinion simply as a result of the food-poisoning having restricted my exposure to them on stage, I remain of the opinion that this band work best on their meticulously crafted records. The mad clamouring of first exposure has long since faded and the tastemakers have found someone else to cheer about, hence this album’s relatively low showing in this year’s big lists. Odd, really, as it’s superior to their debut.

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Yes, opener ‘Montezuma’ picks up from where we left off, all cascading harmonies and gently plucked folksy guitar, but don’t be foolish enough to subscribe to the hipster notion that this is an album of wet, hippy-dippy, brunch-knitting nonsense – because it really isn’t. ‘Battery Kinzie’ is a gloriously plinky-plonky little number which sounds like something straight out of the late-Sixties/early-Seventies Elektra stable, while ‘Lorelai’ shuffles along beneath a wash of harmony, the musical equivalent of that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you witness a particularly beautiful sunset.

The title track features an impassioned chorus and a false ending, the latter being a trick many try but at which few succeed. Here, the luscious, velvety reprise is a gorgeous conclusion to the first half of an album which took the best part of a year to create. Frontman Robin Pecknold had wanted an all-analogue experience with ‘Helplessness Blues‘ harking back to the Sixties and, while he didn’t entirely have his way, sensitive production and mastering of this material have resulted in an album with a stunning stereo soundscape.

The final quarter offer an interesting overview of the album as a whole. A squawking sax breakdown towards the end of ‘The Shrine / An Argument‘ is perhaps the album’s most challenging moment, thought it serves as a deck-clearing release prior to the simple but beautiful ‘Blue Spotted Tail’ which, by contrast, is the most sparse thing here. A more conventional Fleet Foxes tune, ‘Grown Ocean’, rounds things off, but this is far from the result of a band standing still. With a richer, fuller sound and a variety that wasn’t present on the debut, the band have delivered a tremendous second album. Factor in the gorgeous sleeve and thick card sleeve and the sense of this being a cult folk classic from forty years ago is pretty much complete. A quiet triumph.

BEST OF 2011: 22. Sarabeth Tucek – Get Well Soon

An album which has been criminally ignored, this one. Miss the right breeze of softly massaged hype, fail to arrive in the right month or go to the right person for review and truly beautiful records like this can sometimes go almost completely unnoticed. That said, but for my exposure to her debut four years ago, I might not have noticed its many charms. Indeed, I first happened upon the charms of this particular artist when skimming through one of Spillers Records’ weekly mailouts at the end of 2007. Ashli Todd, who now runs the whole shebang, was wildly enthusing about Sarabeth Tucek and I clicked through to listen to a few samples before ordering the CD. Some months later, whilst visiting Britain’s finest city, in feverishly optimistic pursuit of success in the rugby, I popped into Spillers, situated as it still was then on The Hayes, for a quick rummage in the vinyl racks. Happening upon a vinyl copy, I was overcome with a sense I’ve since learnt to not even fight: the need to have a record I love on my favourite format, despite already owning the tunes. As I took it to the counter, Ashli began wildly enthusing about how good it was and I replied that I already knew as I’d bought the CD some months ago. After a slightly odd look, we then rhapsodised about that particular debut for several minutes before I went off to watch the boys in red take a hiding.

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Get Well Soon’ is a very different record to that debut, documenting the death of Tucek’s father and borne out of a period of lows and self-destructive behaviour which ensured that this was never simply going to be more of the same. It sounds like the kind of album you’d dig out of the crates at a record fair, pick up on the basis of its beautiful sleeve and buy on a whim, only to find you’ve unearthed a lost classic. ‘The Fireman’ is a warm, spacious recording and Tucek’s vocal, which sits atop, delivering lines like “The Fireman saved many a home but the fireman could save his own,” is utterly beautiful. When the plucked guitar line comes in, my day is quantifiably improved. It’s one of those little moments in songs which cause the hairs to go up on your neck and other assorted clichés which describe discernable psychical reactions. Soft and measured seems to be the musical order of the day here but, as anyone who likes a little Cat Power or ‘Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle’ knows, when this is executed to perfection, it can be genuinely very affecting.

State I Am In’ lilts and chugs with a nod to down-tempo Pretenders and early Nineties American indie. It’s a charming bit of musical self-confidence amongst a great deal of heartache and melodic fragility. In contrast, the faintly unsettling drone-like introduction to ‘Rising’ gradually rumbles its way to an outburst of guitars and the parting shot, “I can’t wait to see you again and I cannot see you again.” That said, gorgeously arranged material, evoking late Sixties, early Seventies singer-songwriters of note, remains the staple fare. If Karen Dalton brightens and emboldens your world, then this album will occupying a similar place in your heart after a number of listens. If the name Karen Dalton means nothing to you, do some research, spend £20 on her two studio albums and thank me later.

Get Well Soon’ is an album which definitely benefits from regular plays. While its delights are not in any way hard to find on initial listens, repeated exposure will allow it to slowly curl its way around your emotions and eek out a little place in your heart. It’s the sort of album you’ll tell people about excitedly and buy for the sensitive types in your life. The album’s final lines offer a measured sense of optimism and triumph: “It just takes time, get well soon. I was once just like you, get well soon.” Many great records have been birthed out of traumatic or intense periods of an artist’s life, and to that list of fine albums can be added ‘Get Well Soon’.

BEST OF 2011: 23. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost

After a 2009 debut which set the polls alight and rained hype down upon them from the giddy heights of critical acclaim, expectations for this second full-length release were high. Generally, that is. I’d picked up the debut on a bitterly cold December afternoon just prior to Christmas in the year of its release when mopping up end of year luminaries I’d hitherto missed. It was alright, and has grown on me a little over time but it wasn’t a cherished addition to the collection. And so, ‘Father Son, Holy Ghost’ crept up on me a bit. This, however, is very much a cherished addition to the collection and one which fills a neat, Teenage Fanclub-sized hole in the year.

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Ok, that’s a convenient comparison which doesn’t apply to every track here, but from the riff heavy, easy to pick up chorus of ‘Honey Bunny’ through the delicate cymbal brushing of breezy jangle-athon ‘Alex’ and on to ‘Saying I Love You’, it’s hard not to think of ‘Bandwagonesque’ and ‘Grand Prix’. The last of those three tracks is a particular delight, with its keening, understated vocal bypassing all other influences and heading straight for the box marked ‘Big Star’. Tempting as it must be to dismiss this as the mere wiffle-waffle of a recovering hyperbolist, I can’t recommend this record enough for fans of the two bands so far mentioned. It’s not close enough to be annoying pastiche nor flimsy enough to simply be the work of desperate copyists – it deserves to be alongside them.

The similarities aren’t constant, however. I’m not sure ‘Vomit’ is a title that Chilton’s group would have ever gone for, even if the song – a glorious, sprawling beast: part anxious, heavy guitar, part emotive organ and swooning back vocals – isn’t a massive departure. Quite why they insisted upon giving it this name though – admittedly with some reasoning, based on the aphorism “as a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool repeats his folly” – it’s like ‘I’m In Love With A Girl’ having been released as ‘Tits’.

As with so many jangly indie albums, the pace isn’t massively varied and it certainly benefits from multiple listens, allowing the gorgeous melodies and neat little guitar parts to rise to the top. ‘Magic’ is a great example of one of those which floats past on the first few listens, sounding already curiously familiar, only to then lurch out and become a firm favourite a few months down the line. The soulful leanings of the aforementioned ‘Vomit’ and penultimate track ‘Love Like A River’ are played straight and are all the more beautiful for it, even if the occasional gospel-styled backing vocal takes a little getting used to in this context.

Father, Son, Holy Ghost’ is an album which rarely gets above mid-paced and often lollops along, nodding its head knowingly. It’s got plenty of time to wait for you to catch up, whether it happens on your first or fifteenth listen. I wouldn’t leave it too long though, eh?