There was something so archaic and so passé, yet so comforting, about Fleet Foxes when their 2008 debut hit shelves. They were bearded Seattle twenty-somethings who were trying to recreate Laurel Canyon folk while their peers tried to recreate 1987. Not exactly the best career move, but it made Fleet Foxes unique in the blogosphere. It helps that their self-titled debut was also one of the prettiest folk albums in any era, an album of uplifting beauty, and one of the most assured debuts of the last decade. But that Fleet Foxes would become one of the biggest bands in indie—nonetheless Spin cover models—was not preordained.
Yet here we are with Helplessness Blues, the band’s long-delayed, long-worked on sophomore album, arguably the year’s most anticipated album. It’s an album that bears the marks of being worked on endlessly (frontman Robin Pecknold was working and re-working it for months, forcing his band into recording it more than once), and also all the things that made these guys a band to watch in 2008: The perfect harmonies, the ornate instrumentation, and the sense that you’ve fallen into a 1965 Flower Power meeting. It’s maddening, and also vaguely reassuring, that you know exactly what you’re going to get: The music world might have changed eight times since 2008, but the Fleet Foxes have not.
Well, that’s not exactly true. The major change between Helplessness Blues and Fleet Foxes is that Robin Pecknold has actual life experience to sing about this time out. Instead of imagining the Blue Ridge Mountains and someone named Oliver James, here he sings of being “older than my mother and father/when they had their daughter/now what does that say about me” on “Montezuma,” wondering about whether or not he’ll be able to find his vision of true love. On the title track he comes to terms with being raised as one of those kids who is told he’s special as a snowflake, but realizing he’d “rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery, serving something greater.” He worries about being “Someone You’d Admire,” and whether or not he’s “old news” on “Lorelai.” It gives the album a personal and earnest tinge, which should only garner Pecknold more opportunities for magazine covers and swoony-eyed love from indie girls.
There are fewer truly transcendent moments here, however, and it’s hard to say if it’s because we know the game Fleet Foxes are playing now. Overall, though, Helplessness Blues doesn’t have the valleys that Fleet Foxes did (that middle stretch is rough), essentially dialing in its range on the first track and staying constant throughout. But like Fleet Foxes, the moments that deserve the most attention are the rare breaks from form. Pecknold shreds his vocal chords on the first half of “The Shrine/An Argument,” howling at the moon, and the song breaks down later in a cacophony of bass clarinets. Album highlight “Grown Ocean” has the fastest BPM on the album, rolling like verdant hills, while the faint traces of flute on “Lorelai” add subtle, non-acoustic strumming touches to the middle of the album.
But here’s the thing: There’s no itch here that Simon & Garfunkel album couldn’t scratch. Fleet Foxes are one of those rare bands that made their entire point on their debut album: “We’re here, we have an extensive Fairport Convention collection, and we’ve come to rock you. Gently.” A sophomore album almost seems superfluous, in a way. Which isn’t to say that Helplessness Blues is a bad album—it’s probably, all things considered, an improvement on the debut—but it comes down to what you’re expecting here. Do you earnestly yearn for another album full of beautifully arranged, meticulously pored over harmonic acoustic folk? Then this is probably your album of the year to beat.
In the second episode of IFC’s Portlandia the fictional mayor of the titular city drafted stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein to pen a song celebrating their hometown. There was one caveat -- “Don’t make it sound like its coming from Seattle.” A few short days later, Seattle-based folk-pop band Fleet Foxes announced the pending spring 2011 release of its sophomore album Helplessness Blues. Conspiracy! The sextet’s album demonstrated the dominance of its corner of the Pacific Northwest by drawing on talent like producer Phil Ek, and artists Toby Liebowitz and Chris Alderson. I smell organic, grass-fed BEEF.