Is there something about Seattle that makes born n' bred city kids croon like wayward bards gazing over the sheep-soaked English countryside? Because it seems like a significant fraction of the music that's come closest to deserving the oft-misapplied folk tag has seeped out of the upper left corner of the States. The latest album from that bucolic pool originates directly within the Fleet Foxes family as bassist Christian Wargo strikes out on a side project alongside keyboardist Casey Wescott and two of their non-Fox friends. The resulting self-titled record is one of the more deceptively polite and pastoral offerings of the year, swaddling dark narratives in charming acoustic timbres while remaining unflappably tranquil.
Given its heritage, it almost feels like an error to call Poor Moon a debut album. While Wargo's new band technically comprises Crystal Skulls plus brothers Ian and Peter Murray, the project's sound clearly shoots off from the group that rocketed the two members of the Skulls to relative notoriety. A first listen could easily and rightfully mistake any track off Poor Moon for a Fleet Foxes b-side. Wargo's songwriting may be sparser and often more subtle than Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold, but the space, the harmonies, and the strictly organic instrumentation will all be familiar to anyone who calls themselves a fan of the baroque pop/indie folk that crystalized within Helplessness Blues. Poor Moon still sounds like bearded dudes jamming on old world instruments beneath high ceilings, and that's because that's exactly its source.
The record's best and biggest trick is its tendency to embed sad, disturbing narratives within soft and gentle sounds. There's plenty of death within these life-affirming orchestrations, and it's easy to miss it all on the first few listens. But unlike Fleet Foxes, whose gentleness breaks open into desperation and angst and other naked, restless feelings, Poor Moon seems both detached and content. It's almost as though Wargo's telling stories that aren't his own because they best fit the structures he's mapped. There's plenty of polish, but little urgency or agency within Poor Moon's brief 30-minute running time.
Even the album's catchiest moments ("Waiting For"), which most strongly recall the band's prior ancestor Pedro the Lion, never much blossom past their placid hooks into anything with real heft. Some experimental textures (harpsicord! carnival organ! oddly harmonized whistles!) are fun until you realize that they'll never grow into anything beyond momentary quirk. Poor Moon may try, at times, to steer their folk toward freak, but it's played so safely that it ends up sounding like a PG rendition of Elephant 6's tamer output. The record's cover reflects this: a surrealist landscape flattened to the point of eliminating what made surrealism work in the first place.
As far as summer folk albums go, Poor Moon should fit nicely enough between Fleet Foxes and The Creek Drank the Cradle. A pleasant and inoffensive endeavor, it'll do well to keep any Foxes fan satisfied for the remainder of the season. But don't be surprised if boredom sets in by fall.