Smile Politely

Album Review: Fleet Foxes, S/T

As proven by Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut, the intersection between the ever-changing music that we’ve dubbed “folk” and “indie” continues to be interesting. The problem with this intersection, and defining it, is that these two brands of music are shifty and inherently lack definition. In this case, Fleet Foxes could be best described as a band that bridges the musical traditions of America’s coasts. Here, the psychedelic sprawl of the west mingles with the tightness of eastern roots traditions such as bluegrass and country-blues. But that doesn’t really cut them any slack as a pop act, which — strange as it might be to some — they are.

Fleet Foxes finds an interesting place in the realm of both popular and independent music, as well: contrary to the enigmatic arena-ready rock of bands like The National and The Arcade Fire (though perhaps willing to steal my heart with strange instrumentation in a way similar to the latter, including the chilling use of chorale), Fleet Foxes is quieter, more insular, daresay more spiritual. If the Arcade Fire preaches the gospel, Fleet Foxes whispers it like a secret.

The driving, percussive, natural aire of most of these songs — notably the eerie, harmony-laden “Heard Them Stirring”— recalls the droning plunk of bluegrass banjo, the boom-chicka-boom of classic country guitar, but what’s remarkable is not simply these aspects of the songs but rather the adjacency of musical elements that seem at once ancient and contemporary, classic and newfound; these paradoxes heighten the awe. Further, unlike many acts that abstractly put together similarly timeless elements in borderline unlistenable ways (nearly all of the “freak folk” movement, for example), Fleet Foxes allows access through familiar structure, blissful melody, and intelligible lyrics. In other words, Fleet Foxes don’t have available to them any tools that their less successful predecessors had, they simply use the tools more efficiently.

Certain songs, such as “Ragged Wood,” could admittedly pass as the B-sides of labelmates Band of Horses, though the sheer space in atmosphere and complexity in structure shows Fleet Foxes’s keen ear from phases of exploring the Grateful Dead and other San Francisco staples of the mid-to-late 1960s. The fact that there’s reverb on the vocals and that the music is, at its most basic, rootsy, will force these comparisons — as well as comparisons to My Morning Jacket — but it doesn’t take much to realize that these comparisons, as usual, are only valid on the very surface and are the things of first encounters.

Fleet Foxes, simply, is difficult to nail down. The more you listen to this record the more you realize the failure of comparison — and what’s a writer to do without functional analogy? But there’s something fundamentally addictive here, something far more natural than the monikers of description and the blenders of comparison, and it’s that organic accessibility and consistency that makes Fleet Foxes’s debut LP remarkable. At first it seems like a mood record — one you can’t listen to without a specific soul-searching mood to match — but then you find you’re willing to conform to the record, not the other way around. And when a record can be that strong, can grip you that tightly, there’s pretty good reasoning to let that happen, and to hold on for dear life.

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