Monday, May 16, 2011

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues (2011) REVIEW

"Helplessness Blues" is Fleet Foxes' second album and it will launch the band in orbit for many years to come, this is Spookrijder's prophecy. There is nothing divinatory in that statement, history is repeating, you just need to know some bits and pieces of it and assemble them together to form some kinda map. Fleet Foxes self-titled and in all the meanings of the word successful debut album has already elevated the band at the summit of independent music in 2008, "Helplessness Blues" being its extension and its formal improvement, it's more than logical it will touch a wider audience and... cross over to the big one. Think about Coldplay's first album "Parachutes" in 2000 followed two years later by "A Rush of Blood to the Head" or take another, and older, example, Dire Straits' self-titled debut album in 1978 followed a year later by "Communiqué" : keep the formula, polish the edges and develop it further. Said like that, it seems easy, actually, I don't know, for Fleet Foxes' frontman Robin Pecknold, it wasn't.

It took Fleet Foxes three years to release a follow up to their debut album while Pecknold's first statement was that he would have liked the second album to be released in 2009. Besides the fact that the band's touring schedule had caused them some setbacks (1), the main reason for the delay lies in Robin Pecknold's "writer's block" due to some untameable perfectionism. At first, his intention was to record very quickly, saying he wanted to do the "vocal takes in one go", he said further : "so even if there are fuck-ups, I want them to be on there. I want there to be guitar mistakes. I want there to be not totally flawless vocals. I want to record it and have that kind of cohesive sound. Van Morrison's 'Astral Weeks', to me, is the best-sounding album because it sounds like there were only six hours in the universe for that album to be recorded in. So I want it to have that feeling." (1) As a matter of fact, the band's first sessions were completely scrapped. So they began recording again from April 2010 after two years of writing material. And the result, "Helplessness Blues", was finally released May 3rd, 2011.

Pecknold's first artistic intention is actually what folk music is made of : spontaneity, energy, sweat, nerves, roughness, texture, music that's alive and played mostly live, even in the studio. Well, it's the same for jazz, rock and blues music, imho. I would have like to hear what could have been the result of this original imperfect recording idea, but for this I will maybe need to see the band in concert. Fleet Foxes' debut album was already quite polished but this was mostly due to Fleet Foxes' own sound, their extensive use of closed harmony vocals and mostly Pecknold's own rather high-pitched and pure voice. Nevertheless, at first hearing, they made me think of some gentler, sunnier and less electrified version of My Morning Jacket (their two first albums mostly) and they definitely reminded me of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's album "Déjà Vu", which by the way contains one Neil Young's classic song "Helpless" (sic). As Fleet Foxes' musical direction hasn't changed much, those references still applies for "Helplessness Blues" but they broadened their influences to incorporate more English folk's ingredients reminiscent of Fairport Convention, Pentangle and even some tiny tiny bits of Nick Drake. The overall atmosphere is slightly darker, more cloudy than on the debut and they are more unexpected experimental spots like some found sounds on "Lorelai" and surely free jazz freak-outs, if sustained by some harmonious strings, for the last minute and a half of the two parts eight minutes song "The Shrine/An Argument". Once again, the songwriting is excellent on "Helplessness Blues", if not always at the same quality level, my stand-outs are "Bedouin Dress", its Danny Thompson-like double bass and very captivating fiddle or the incredibly affecting title track, I believe the latter is already a new classic in folk, just like in any song-oriented music.

To put it simply, "Helplessness Blues" is definitely a great album, although I have some gripes about it. The first one is that despite the impressive delivery, Robin Pecknold's larger-than-life vocals, the gigantic acoustic guitar sounds, the carefully and richly multi-layered instrumentation, the exquisite melodies, I can't get over it that, except for the stand-out songs mentioned earlier, the songs were generally a tiny bit better on the debut album. The second and more important gripes is that Fleet Foxes seems to cleanse, polish, whitewash and mostly 'technicize' folk music in a similar way as Dire Straits did for blues and roots rock in their time, the process makes their music definitely more radio friendly and eye-boggling, which very soon means more popular, but the musical authenticity slightly suffers from it and as a consequence my own emotional response falters as well. "Helplessness Blues" doesn't sound as good as Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks", not really Robin.

7.5 out of 10


  • Fleet Foxes (2008) - 8

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