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.

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