Seattle's Fleet Foxes traffic in baroque harmonic pop. They draw influences from the traditions of folk, pop, choral, gospel, sacred harp singing, West Coast music, traditional music from Ireland to Japan, film scores, and their NW peers. The subject matter ranges from the natural world and familial bonds to bygone loves and stone cold graves.
Review by Heather Phares
Borrowing from ageless folk and classic rock (and nicking some of the best bits from prog and soft rock along the way), on their self-titled debut album Fleet Foxes don't just master the art of taking familiar influences and making them sound fresh again, they give a striking sense of who they are and what their world is like. Fleet Foxes' cover appears vaguely medieval, yet their song titles reference the Blue Ridge Mountains -- never mind that they're actually from Seattle -- but it's the ease and skill with which they mix and match British and American folk and rock from the far and not too distant past that makes the band's music so refreshing. While this mix could be contrived or indulgent, Fleet Foxes use restraint, structuring their flourishes into three- and four-minute pop songs full of chiming melodies and harmonies that sound like they've been summoned from centuries of traditional songs and are full of vivid, universal imagery: mountains, birds, family, death. Despite drawing from so many sources, there's a striking purity to Fleet Foxes' sound. Robin Pecknold's voice is warm and sweet, with just enough grit to make phrases like "premonition of my death" sound genuine, and the band's harmonies sound natural, and stunning, whether they're on their own or supported by acoustic guitars or the full, plugged-in band. "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" and "Meadowlarks" show just how much the Foxes do with the simplest elements of their music, but Fleet Foxes' best songs marry that purity with twists that open their sound much wider. As good as the Sun Giant EP was, Fleet Foxes saved many of their best songs for this album. "White Winter Hymnal" is remarkably beautiful, building from a vocal round into glorious jangle pop with big, booming drums that lend a sense of adventure as the spine-tingling melody lightens some of the lyrics' darkness ("Michael you would fall and turn the white snow red as strawberries in summertime"). The suite-like "Ragged Wood" moves from a galloping beat to sparkling acoustic picking, then takes a trippy detour before returning to a more thoughtful version of its main theme. "Quiet Houses" and "He Doesn't Know Why"'s driving pianos show off the band's flair for drama. Dazzling songs like these are surrounded by a few songs that find the band leaning a little more heavily on its influences. "Your Protector" nods to Zeppelin's misty, mournful side, and "Blue Ridge Mountains" is the kind of earthy yet sophisticated song CSNY would have been proud to call their own. But, even when the songs aren't as brilliant as Fleet Foxes' highlights, the band still sounds alluring, as on the lush interlude "Heard Them Stirring." Throughout the album, the band sounds wise beyond its years, so it's not really that surprising that Fleet Foxes is such a satisfying, self-assured debut.
[Sub Pop; 2008]
Fleet Foxes may have a firm grasp on rock and folk history, but they never play to their record collection. Rather than revive a particular scene or re-create a lost sound, the Seattle quintet cherrypick their ideas from a broad spectrum of styles, pulling in Appalachian folk, classic rock, AM country, and SoCal pop to create a personal synthesis of the music of their peers, their parents, and even their grandparents.
The band didn't leave town to record Fleet Foxes, yet it sounds like it could have been recorded anywhere in the United States-- Austin, Minneapolis, Chicago, Brooklyn, Louisville, or more likely some clearing in the woods. That placelessness constitutes an active effacement, considering that Seattle has been a locus for alternative music for nearly two decades. The five-piece is thoroughly embedded in that scene: Their ranks include current and former members of Crystal Skulls, Pedro the Lion, and Seldom. Furthermore, to produce the sessions that created the Sun Giant EP and this debut LP, they hired Phil Ek, best known for his work with Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, and the Shins.
Nevertheless, theirs is a studiously rural aesthetic, eschewing urban influences and using reverb like sepia-tone to suggest something much older and more rustic than it really is. The album opens with a short tune (titled "Red Squirrel" on early leaks but not listed on the CD) that could be a field recording sung by a small-town congregation 50 years ago. It ushers us into Fleet Foxes' old world; after a few bars, the song darts into the heraldic "Sun It Rises", which sure enough sounds like someone's idea of a sunrise over an evergreen mountain. But they're not done yet: Just as the song fades, it rises into a quiet coda that previews two more elements of their sound-- the patient guitar lick on "Blue Ridge Mountains" and the vocal harmonies that color numerous songs on the record. All that's missing are the crackles and hisses of an old LP. (Fortunately, Sub Pop is issuing it on vinyl.)
What follows is surprisingly full and wide ranging, almost as much as the Bruegel painting that graces the album's cover. Skye Skjelset's guitar roams wherever it pleases, while drummer Nicholas Peterson keeps the songs in check, allowing the band to move freely but not wander too far into the woods. A flute, half-submerged in the mix, adds lurking menace to the album's most intense jam, "Your Protector", and Casey Wescott's staccato piano rhythm runs through "Blue Ridge Mountains", heightening the momentum of the chorus.
For all the album's winding paths and unexpected vistas, Fleet Foxes' harmonies remain the primary draw, and they've written and arranged these songs to showcase their shared vocals. "Heard Them Stirring" has no lyrics, but it's hard to call it an instrumental. Against a shuffling shaker-and-tambourine rhythm, "Ragged Wood" switches between Robin Pecknold's lead vocals and the band's harmonies after each verse, effectively translating classic rock via folk elements. There's as much Fleetwood Mac as the Band in the song's rousing finale. On the other hand, Fleet Foxes do restraint just as well: "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" features only a lone acoustic guitar and Pecknold's forceful vocals, which switch to a spooky falsetto on the outro.
Vocals play such a primary role in Fleet Foxes' music that Pecknold's lyrics at times sound like merely a delivery system for harmonies, with references to meadowlarks, rising suns, and streams bolstering the rural and placeless evocations. However, these are ultimately carefully and well-crafted compositions. On "White Winter Hymnal", a firelit roundelay that best showcases the band's vocal interplay, the lyrics convey strange, almost Edward Gorey-like imagery: "I was following the pack/ All swallowed in their coats/ With scarves of red tied 'round their throats/ To keep their little heads from falling in the snow/ And I turned 'round and there you go." Who knows exactly what the words mean, but the fairy-tale menace comes through in full color, and Peterson's floor-tom beat and the intricacy of the band's harmonies dispel the threat without diluting the mystery.
Fleet Foxes ends with "Oliver James", another nearly a cappella showcase for Pecknold's solo vocals. As he thumps out a soft rhythm on his Martin acoustic, he sings about handmade tables and long-gone grandparents, howling the chorus "Oliver James, washed in the rain/ No longer." The brief snippet of "Red Squirrel" and "Sun It Rises" invites you into Fleet Foxes' debut, but "Oliver James" doesn't shoo you out the door. Instead, Fleet Foxes let you linger for a few more bars, leaning forward to catch Pecknold's last syllable as it fades into the air. They don't seem to want the record to end any more than you will.
- Stephen M. Deusner, June 6, 2008