Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop, 2011)

When their self-titled debut CD came out in 2008, Fleet Foxes immediately became a sensation among critics and fans of indie music. Despite a heavy sixties influence, their rustic, heavily reverbed sound had a pleasantly unique element to it, and came across as a breath of fresh air. Of course, plenty of performers and bands have made a big splash initially, only to disappear with subsequent efforts. It took a couple of years and a few false starts, but the band's sophomore effort Helplessness Blues came out in May 2011. Happily, the new album takes what what was good about its predecessor and improves on it.

As before, Fleet Foxes revolve around the singing and songwriting of Robin Pecknold. Pecknold's lyrics remain alluringly cryptic, drawing the listeners in to the scenes he creates; he doesn't always provide an unambiguous meaning, but what he lacks in explicitness he makes up for with poetry. His most direct song on this album is the title song, in which he resolves to find a purpose to his life and not just accept things as they are. Pecknold also contributes on guitar, along with Skyler Skjelset. The two blend together very nicely with an approach that is understated but very effective, particularly on the songs "Sim Sala Bim" and "The Cascades." The biggest difference in the overall sound on Helplessness Blues is the increased emphasis on vocal harmonies, on which Pecknold is assisted by keyboardist Casey Wescott and new bassist Christian Wargo. The harmonies definitely owe something to Crosby, Stills & Nash, but the old-school approach to group vocals worked then and still sounds fresh now. A number of the songs are broken into several parts, giving the new album a bit more of a prog feel than the first album had. This generally works well, but the "argument" part of "The Shrine/An Argument" has a painfully dissonant sax part that is totally out of place on this record.

Still, that's the one real blemish on an otherwise excellent album. Robin Pecknold is one of the best of the current generation of singer-songwriters, and the rest of Fleet Foxes provide solid vocal and instrumental support. Helplessness Blues is a definite best-of-year candidate, and I'm really looking forward to this band's continued development.

Overall grade: A

reviewed by Scott

"Grown Ocean"

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