Album review: Fleet Foxes ‘Helplessness Blues’

Ed McMenamin

Fleet Foxes: “Helplessness Blues”

Sub pop/ Grade: A

Robin Pecknold is a serial self-doubter. The principle singer-songwriter of Seattle’s Fleet Foxes canned a whole batch of songs initially destined for the band’s follow-up record, and he can’t decide whether to look back in regret or pride.

He’s reached the point of adulthood where comparisons to your parents at the same age are unavoidable  — “oh my God, they were married and having kids already” — and he wonders “what does that say about me?” throughout “Helplessness Blues.”

His listeners, no doubt, are thinking about the same things: marrying and having kids later, and moving out later, too, restrained by the icy harness of a cold economy. Luckily for Pecknold, he is a bit more gifted than the average 20-something under-achiever.

His band’s 2008 self-titled debut was widely hailed as one of that year’s best, of any genre, with gospel harmonies providing the dignified backing for a pastoral yet modern take on traditional American folk. The new record looks for added influence in British folk (Fairport Convention, etc), a tradition this writer is admittedly not nearly as familiar with.

Album-opener “Montezuma” would have fit in well on the debut, with Pecknold beginning softly with casual acoustic guitar picking. The church harmonies flood the space quickly as he wonders if he’ll ever find a “selfless and true love. Could I wash my hands of just looking out for me?”

It’s well-worn subject matter for sure, and it is sung with the kind of earnestness that would likely cause Belushi to smash a guitar, but the harmonies should crack even the heaviest armor of cynicism and irony.

The album’s title track and high-water mark begins clumsily lyrics-wise, using a worn-out snowflake metaphor. But Pecknold quickly turns the song toward the thesis statement laid out in “Montezuma,” professing his desire to be a cog in a machine greater than himself and fantasizing about a simple life working himself sore in an orchard.

That tendency for cliche revealed in the snowflake line festers uncontrolled on the record’s only real stinker, “Lorelai,” rhyming “you were like glue, holding us together” and “I was old news, to you then.”

That song may be the result of songwriting that is somewhat more straightforward throughout. Nothing is quite as poetic as the debut’s highlight, “White Winter Hymnal.” But while the new message is more direct, the music itself shows more range.

Much of “Helplessness Blues” benefits from a wide range of instrumentation. A languid fiddle on “Bedouin Dress” moves like a Terrence Malick tracking shot through swaying blades of grass. Dissonant horns bring “The Shrine / An Argument” to an unsettled conclusion.

Emphatic strumming on “Sim Sala Bim” recalls Led Zeppelin’s “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp,” even if the singing styles of Pecknold and Robert Plant couldn’t be more different.

At first glance, proto-heavy-metal rockers are an unlikely reference point for a gentle Fleet Foxes record. But the instrumental track “The Cascades” sounds as mystical as Jimmy Page and Plants’ “Lord of the Rings” referencing work, specifically “The Battle of Evermore.”

After all, if Frodo and Gandalf need a more relaxing road trip destination, few places routinely turn out more great records than the Pacific Northwest.

Accent editor  Ed McMenamin may be reached at