In the midst of a heavily electronic zeitgeist, the past decade has experienced a reactionary rise in the output of folk music. For this the first names that come to mind are indeed the likes of Mumford and Sons, Ben Howard and Jake Bugg; however, in spite of Mumford and Sons taking the world by storm, there remains another band that could be seen to be the champions of the folk movement: that band is Fleet Foxes. Hailing from Seattle (home also to grunge heroes Nirvana), this outfit’s eponymous debut album received critical acclaim across the world for a bucolic character that can be seen even before the soaring harmonies of the record’s opener ‘Sun It Rises’. This is of course referring to the album’s artwork; a painting entitled ‘Netherlandish Proverbs’, which could not fit the atmosphere and personality of the record more.
The seeming ubiquity of Fleet Foxes in lists of ‘Top 50 Albums’, as well as a plethora of five star reviews, give credence to the notion that this album introduced a game-changer onto the world stage. Following the debut EP ‘Sun Giant’, extensive word of mouth exposure had gifted the band a foundation from which to launch their first effort at a full LP. If memory serves, the first time I came across the record was in a friend’s car when I heard the song ‘Ragged Wood’, a fast-paced track that hits you with harmonies of a transcendent originality. To put it bluntly I had never heard music like it, to this day I have struggled to attach an appropriate genre to it (Wikipedia has labelled it to be ‘Indie folk, baroque pop, folk rock’) and singer and principal songwriter Robin Pecknold has spoken of how even the name was intended to be ‘evocative of some weird English activity like fox hunting’.
This somewhat nostalgic sentiment prevails throughout, musically as well as lyrically. The band writes of journeys and of struggles in a beautifully poetic way whereby much is left to the imagination. Using only nine lines for two and a half minutes of music, second track ‘White Winter Hymnal’ is a showcase of just how powerful the band’s partnering of lyrics and imagery can be. Meanwhile ‘Quiet Houses’ employs the repetition of three lines to play alongside a flowing and soothing instrumental backdrop, whilst ‘Heard Them Stirring’ weaves merely a few chants to dance around the song’s more variant progressions. Contrast this to the ethereal rhythms and charming articulations of personal favourite ‘Blue Ridge Mountains’ (“You’re ever welcome with me any time you like/ Let’s drive to the country side/ leave behind some green-eyed look-a-likes/ So no one gets worried, no”) and what is highlighted is not only the band’s diversity but the record’s eclectic nature.
This particular effort of this orchestral folk ensemble should be a benchmark not only for the band but for all others that find themselves falling under this category of music. The reason that this record is of great relevance today is because it does exactly what music should do: keep you guessing. At a time when the charts were dominated by repetitive club anthems this album was the antithesis to predictability. Upon first listen it is very hard to see where the tracks are going, yet that is all but a part of the album’s transcendent originality, and in a sense are not originality and sincerity of expression what all art forms should be striving for?
This is a role-model of an album, an inspiring and timeless record, one that draws inspiration from the instruments of the East and one that you need to experience. When the band recently released pictures online, first of a guitar then of a mandolin, coupled with the captions ‘Step one’ and ‘Step two’, they made it clear that a follow up to 2011’s Helplessness Blues LP (the band’s second album) is on its way. In two albums this band has won me over and, as Mr. Pecknold is aware, the main concern is maintaining that same sheer quality. If the band’s next effort is anywhere near the standard set by their debut, I would consider that a success.
Fleet Foxes was released on Sub Pop on 3rd June 2008.