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Fleet Foxes Change Things Up With "Helplessness Blues"

Emily Wilson |
April 30, 2011 | 11:05 a.m. PDT


via Wikimedia
via Wikimedia
An early May release, for music that fits so eloquently into a springtime sensibility, is something of marketing genius.

On the indie-folk Fleet Foxes’ second album, Helplessness Blues, the musical arrangements, complexly layered with multi-instrumentation and choir-like harmonies, serve their overall purpose best when listened to and considered in the subtle warmth of a mild spring day.

But the lyrical content on the album is not of an entirely sunny disposition. The verses and choruses deviate from the band’s successful 2008 debut, in which woodsy stories of nature’s beauty were at the forefront. Some of that still exists here, but this album consistently contains lyrics of a more personal and introspective nature.

It seems that songwriter and lead singer Robin Pecknold is now more comfortable, or at least more interested in, writing about his own experiences, feelings and reservations. His soothing and emotive voice takes on a more prominent role on this album—and rightfully so. A personal narrative needs a main character.

That is not to say that the ethereal and beautiful quality of the band’s signature multi-part harmonies is lessened on Helplessness Blues. This album still sounds like a group project, with many voices and many instruments (including zithers and Tibetan singing bowls) working impressively as one.

But with a new album comes a slightly different sound, and it's obviously been decided that Pecknold’s role is to be more established.

Songs like the title track demonstrate that new personal to group balance in both musicality and lyric:

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique/ like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes/unique in each way you can see/and now after some thinking/I’d say I’d rather be/a functioning cog in some great machinery/serving some thing beyond me.

With each of the band’s six members working as functioning cogs, this album became their “great machinery.” It is just different enough than the first to be its own, but still consistent to the Fleet Foxes sound that so many have come to take pleasure in.

Songs like 'Battery Kinzie' most represent the band’s expected sound, while 'The Shrine/An Argument' does something entirely new, including a spastic, lovely saxophone breakdown at the end. 'Sim Sala Bim' builds from quiet into a flurry of foot-stompable guitar parts halfway through, while 'Blue Spotted Tail' provides the album with its most stripped-down moments of contemplation.

It was three years ago that the Fleet Foxes released their debut album and were on the frontlines of propelling forth a sort of folk music revival in both the U.S. and parts of Europe.

Whether or not that style has reached its mainstream fever pitch is yet unknown, but even if the Fleet Foxes don’t encounter the Saturday-Night-Live-appearance type of reception that they did for the first album, the ever-beautiful Helplessness Blues will unquestionably delight fans old and new.


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