i’ve got smoke in my lungs and a past life in my trunk

“Jesus Christ, girl.” At only three words into “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings“, the lead single off Fear Fun by Josh Tillman’s new project Father John Misty, it’s clear there’s something special happening. The reverb and strung-out-sunset hollowness crashing against Tillman’s vocal turns is like a car wreck – you can’t turn yourself away from what’s going on.

Tillman, formerly of Fleet Foxes, has a gorgeous voice. While he’s technically sound, it’s the charisma and humor creeping at the corners that pushes it to another level. The religious/cult leader implications of the Father John Misty moniker (“Joseph Campbell and The Rolling Stones / couldn’t give me a myth / so I had to write my own”) are apt; in person Tillman is handsome and witty but approachable, and both live and on record could sing the phone book and make it the most compelling thing happening in the room. You’ll happily follow him wherever he may go, and he goes everywhere.

“O I Long to Feel Your Arms Around Me” is pretty and hymn-like; the man has an ear for the spirit. Lofty, too, is the apex of “Only Son of the Ladiesman”. “Teepees 1-12” is a country shaker, complete with fiddle dance hall swing. FJM brings to mind The Beatles a couple of times on the album, both with “This Is Sally Hatchet” and “I’m Writing a Novel” (which is a cross between “Pleasant Valley Sunday” by The Monkees and “The Ballad of John and Yoko” – a move that seems intentional based on the song’s lyrics). In general Tillman nods to the past but makes it sound new, a dusted-off find from deep in the vault and not some lame apery.

Every track on the record is solid, a rare find in a singles-driven industry. Unsurprising, though, considering “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” is a contender for favorite song of 2012. Fear Fun is an instant classic, prime for those sunny summer mornings and lazy front porch afternoons.

Fear Fun dropped 05.01.12.
Click to download “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” and “Nancy From Now On“.

sunlight over me no matter what i do

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.