Fleet Foxes: “Fleet Foxes”

Seattle’s Fleet Foxes were all the rage on indie rock blogs long before their debut EP, Sun Giant, and subsequent full-length ever saw the light of day, and it’s not hard to see why-in many ways, the five-piece band deals in some of the most fashionable of indie rock trends circa 2008, carrying them to the logical conclusion that other bands have just hinted at-but, very much to the band’s credit, they never give the impression that they’re aping popular indie trends; they’re far too busy aping older, better bands from the Woodstock era to care much about what’s going on in Pitchfork-land.

Very much of a piece with the Sun Giant set, the self-titled debut is a meandering, seamless tapestry of taut vocal harmonies and organic instrumental passages-and though it captures the spirit of folk music better than almost anything else in 2008, there are dynamic shifts offered by the subtle shading of gospel, country, and rock music. It’s music without borders, which is, of course, what makes it essentially folk, and essentially Americana. Sure, there are clear debts owed to the Byrds, The Band, the Zombies, Joni Mitchell, Fairpoint Convention, even the Beach Boys, but Fleet Foxes plunge headlong into this lofty tradition of American music with such sheer joy for music-making that it feels more like a celebration than an homage.

The album sounds great, which is crucial-one is almost tempted to say that the band emphasizes sound over song, which doesn’t mean that it isn’t hooky or memorable; just that the music is so free-flowing, the songs ebb and flow into one another with little regard for traditional verse-chorus structures, that one doesn’t remember whole songs so much as little snatches of wordless harmony, hypnotic instrumental passages, stray melodies or the textures of different instruments. The songs are all very much of a piece, to the extent that individual tracks may seem underwhelming, but that’s not how the album is meant to be heard; it’s a tapestry of sounds and ideas, an evocative and mood-altering piece of music that needs to be swallowed whole.

The human voice is obviously important to music like this-mountain music, church music, folk music-and to be sure, Robin Pecknold and his bandmates harmonize with striking beauty, and indeed, the album is so rich with harmonies that they almost start to grow tiresome by its end. But words are important too, and Pecknold’s songs-impressionistic rather than strictly narrative-sound a bit like he’s slept through the past hundred years or so of human development. There’s nothing about technology or modern culture at all; this is rustic through and through. Rain and snow fall, birds sing, squirrels scuttle about, and Pecknold considers some rather delicious-sounding summer strawberries. (The album’s original working title-Ragged Wood-gives a pretty good indication as to the kinds of images and motifs that these songs deal with.)

It’s as focused on simple beauty as just about anything else in indie rock, which is perhaps why it stands out-it just so happens to play into some of the trends made popular by Animal Collective and Devendra Banhart, but the sincerity and authenticity of this music makes it clear that any trendiness is sheer coincidence. Of course, since the album is so focused on flashes of striking beauty, it’s a very warm and inviting recording, but also one that sometimes meanders a bit too much to be truly gripping. Thus, some of the most compelling moments come when Pecknold injects a bit of subversive darkness into his lyrics-“tell me any lie you want/ any old lie will do,” he sings in one song, a sufficiently sinister line that makes one hope the band will branch out (pun intended) from their nature imagery for some meatier, more complex folk lyrics on future outings. But regardless of where they do from here, Fleet Foxes is an unquestionably rich and engrossing album, steeped in long-standing traditions but with a vision all of its own, and with enough moments of sheer, giddy joy to overcome any minor flaws and make this band a most welcome addition to 2008’s indie rock roster.

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