Helplessness Blues, the second full-length from Seattle’s Fleet Foxes, is a meandering foray into picked guitar, instrumental experimentation, and thick vocal harmonies. Where Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut was dominated by clean, bright vocals and Americana-inspired tunes, Helplessness Blues skews a little further toward the place where folk and psychedelic meet.
Fleet Foxes is probably best known for the members’s ability to harmonize, and there’s no lack of group vocals on the album. For the most part they’re as beautiful as ever, “Helplessness Blues” offering the prettiest arrangement of the bunch. In “The Plains/Bitter Dancer” the band spices the vocals up a bit by incorporating some minor harmonies before exploding into a happy hosanna. The only point where the bands harmonizing goes astray is on “Bedouin Dress”. Overall the song has a trippy 60s vibe, like the band had gone skipping through a field of poppies before recording. The vocal harmonies, though, can sound a little too much like a barbershop quartet. Though beautifully sung, the quality is incongruous to both the song and album.
The base around which Fleet Foxes’ songs are built is Robin Pecknold. Lead singer and the band’s songwriter, Pecknold voice and vision guide the band. “Blue Spotted Tail” is just Pecknold and a guitar; simple, quiet, and intimate, it centers the listener and draws him or her in. Pecknold’s voice is most impressive when singing the phrase “sunlight over me no matter what I do” on “The Shrine/An Argument” because he cedes some control and lets some feeling show. In a recent interview, Pecknold talks of writing and re-writing the album, his perfectionism convincing him that every song could be better, different, tweaked. You can hear evidence of this on Helplessness Blues – so much of it is calculated that this sole yelp of emotion stands out as the album’s high point.
Helplessness Blues has some really lovely moments, and Pecknold and crew get points for taking risks, but the album isn’t as easy to connect with as their debut. It will be interesting to see how the new material plays out in concert; past performance has proved they’re an incredible live act. What doesn’t quite cement on tape may be mind-blowing in person.
Helplessness Blues drops 05.03.11.
Download “Helplessness Blues” here.