Seattle's Fleet Foxes make such complex, harmonic, 70s inspired folk-rock, it's hard to believe that the band's principle songwriter, Robin Pecknold, is only 21 years old. There's a moment on David Crosby's "Laughing" where Cros, Joni, and the whole gang hit a harmony that might be the most gorgeous moment in the history of recorded music. The Fleet Foxes know that moment and they go for it. This EP is a precursor to the band's debut, "Ragged Wood", out in June.
Review by Heather Phares
Fleet Foxes cover a lot of territory -- both musical and geographical -- on Sun Giant, their debut EP for Sub Pop. The band's close, pristine harmonies and spare arrangements are at once timeless and a breath of fresh air, sharing roots with '60s folk-rock, 2000s indie pop, and ageless traditional songs. Fleet Foxes feel like they're singing to, and for, themselves on the EP, particularly on the title track, which lingers on their harmonies before drifting off on an acoustic guitar melody. Even on "Drops in the River," which builds from similarly simple beginnings to big drums and plugged-in guitars, the gentle beauty of the Foxes' melodies remains the same. From "English House"'s sparkling autoharps to the dreamy, soft rock-tinged "Mykonos," Sun Giant plays like it was culled from a backpacker's travel journal. With this intimate, organic, and tantalizing first glimpse at their music, Fleet Foxes sound like they've been making music a lot longer than their ages would suggest. Call it old soul music.
Sun Giant EP
[Sub Pop; 2008]
The opening track on Fleet Foxes' debut EP is the perfect introduction to this Seattle band, whose carefully fashioned songs reward more active listening than your typical indie-roots outfit. "Sun Giant" begins with their soft harmonies reverberating in what sounds like a cathedral space. With no accompaniment, their sustained a cappella notes fade slowly, adding gravity to this hymn of contentment: "What a life I lead in the summer/ What a life I lead in the spring." The only other instrument is Skyler Skjelset's mandolin, which enters late in the song playing a delicate theme as singer Robin Pecknold hums quietly.
The Sun Giant EP-- sold on tour and digitally through Sub Pop, with a proper release forthcoming-- contains familiar sounds, but Fleet Foxes make something new and special with them, following their own musical whims as closely as they follow tradition. (Maybe more closely.) These five songs-- modest but never spare, atmospheric but never as an end in itself-- change shape constantly, taking in elements of classic rock, church music, old-timey folk, and soundtrack flourishes. Already mistaken for Southern rock (there's not enough boogie in Nicholas Peterson's drums for that), Fleet Foxes will bear repeated comparisons, both praising and disparaging, to groups like My Morning Jacket and Band of Horses, but those connections are based on superficial similarities like geography or the heavy use of reverb. In fact, Fleet Foxes' touchstones are much more diverse than that-- and not necessarily so contemporary. Until recently, their MySpace page listed Judee Sill, Crosby Stills & Nash, and Fairport Convention as influences, although now it reads "not much of a rock band." That's not especially true. You could also make a case that Fleet Foxes' demonstrative harmonies recall Fleetwood Mac; that their rearrangement and recombination of traditional styles hints at the Band or, more recently, Grizzly Bear; that their short, evocative instrumental phrasing bears similarities to Pinetop Seven.
Such comparisons accompany the arrival of most young bands, but Fleet Foxes' songs inhabit a very specific, very rural space that's as much a product of how these songs are assembled as it is of how they sound. Like a novelist writing intricately winding sentences, the band craft hummable melodies that never quite go where you expect, but sound neither manipulated nor directed. After the quiet title track comes "Drops in the River", which builds gradually as the band patiently add instruments-- strange ambient clattering in the background and simple floor toms in place of a drum kit, accentuated with tambourine and a snaky electric guitar. Halfway through the song, Fleet Foxes reach a dramatic peak, and their next move is surprising: The music ebbs momentarily, as if to build anew through a second verse, but then picks up at that same dramatic level. Like the rest of the EP, "Drops in the River" possesses an intriguingly blunt concision, as though Fleet Foxes have no time for the luxury of long, slow crescendos or meandering jams. They focus their arrangements finely, emphasizing Pecknold's rustically impressionistic lyrics as much as their organic and inventive sound.
"English House" and "Mykonos", the longest and most obviously "rock" songs, comprise the EP's rising action and reveal more of Fleet Foxes' range. The former is a graceful downward rush of guitars and percussion, with a falsetto chorus trimming the music like Christmas lights in the rafters. "Mykonos" doesn't travel as far as its title suggests, but thrives on the tension between Pecknold's wordless vocal intro and the band's intricate harmonies. Of course, it careens off in new directions. "Brother, you don't need to turn me away," Pecknold pleads, bringing the song to a dramatic standstill. Then the band just runs away with the song again.
The Sun Giant EP ends with Pecknold alone once more, singing "Innocent Son" with only a few brusque strums as accompaniment. With only the sparsest elements, he turns the song into a sort of rough county-road soul, his voice unceremoniously fading out on the final words. This song, and the others here, reinforce the impression that Sun Giant is more than a tour souvenir or a promotional teaser for a proper release. It's a sovereign work: a statement EP, supremely crafted and confident.
-Stephen M. Deusner, February 29, 2008