Music Review: Fleet Foxes “Helplessness Blues”

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Artist: Fleet Foxes
Album: Helplessness Blues
Year: 2011

This album was released in 2011 but since I have been touting it to a lot of people lately I feel that it would be nice if I went through and gave it a thorough review. I’ve been saying it’s one of my favourite albums for a while now, and maybe need to defend the reasons why.

I bought it on vinyl which came with a nice poster and digital code to download the album, which I really can’t complain about. It sits in my record player more times than not.

1. Montezuma
The first track on the album, vocal-heavy and a good start to listening. I think the first time you hear it, it might be easy to dismiss this song, but after a few times through you start belting out the lyrics once you hear them. Not a bad thing, I think! It starts off with the first-person narrative of this album, which I think is pretty central to the core idea of Helplessness Blues. It’s very personal feeling, like going through a catalogue of introspections, reviewing memories and relationships.

2. Bedouin Dress
More upbeat than the first track, reminds me more of driving in the countryside. Though I listened to this whole album driving from the South Shore of Nova Scotia to the Annapolis Valley, so maybe that’s where it takes me listening to it again. This song is about looking back, and I think that’s what it makes me do.

3. Sim Sala Bim
This song is a little more haunting, a little more emotional, a lot more upbeat and acoustic guitar heavy at parts. Makes you miss someone you’ve never met. Leaves you restless and asking questions.

4. Battery Kinzie
I can’t figure out what’s going on in this song but I think it’s the most radio-friendly sounding. Also reminds me of the Byrds. I want to sing along to it but I can’t match the pitch in a way that sounds nice. That’s my own fault, though, can’t blame them for that!

5. The Plains/Bitter Dancer
Quieter and a little dissonant. Reminds me of the dawn after staying up all night with insomnia – not necessarily a good feeling but sort of relief at seeing it? Has a lot of depth. Would be interesting to see a music video for this one I think. The ending gets stuck in my head.

6. Helplessness Blues
Our title track. Reminds me a little of Montezuma right off the bat but holds its own. This is very catchy and probably a good song to introduce someone to the album or band. It’s got the same sort of tempo and instrumentals that would appeal to Mumford and Sons fans, a comparison I doubt I am the first to make. A lot less howling and whooping, however, which sets it apart. We get orchard imagery here which is repeated later and I think it’s interesting. Reminds me of when I was a kid and learned the word saffron and used it in a lot of poems for school and got called out on it. Also this track seems to be more about independence and self rather than sadness over other people. So, a nice transition from the first half of the album.

7. The Cascades
Instrumental track. Very narrative quality. A lot more folk sounding than the other tracks, reminds me of SJ Tucker’s Taglio and a little of the songs from the Shire in Lord of the Rings, but with a slightly more sombre tone. Could be a neat backing track in a movie, I’m picturing a scene with a campfire.

220px-FleetFoxesHelplessness_Blues20118. Lorelai
Sad song about a breakup set to somewhat-upbeat folk. Didn’t pick up on the message of the lyrics until I read them, and this was after listening to the song a few times. A little more like Battery Kinzie but I can’t imagine in on the radio. That is not an insult.

9. Someone You’d Admire
Like a poem set to music. It’s a really interesting one. Less experimental sounding in terms of the instruments, but something about it makes me feel like I need to listen to it more to understand it better. Good stuff.

10. The Shrine/An Argument
I think this is my favourite song. Really great vocals and guitar. I’ve listened to this one late at night a lot. Some raw stuff in here. I’m of two minds regarding the ending, which I guess is the Argument promised in the title. Half the time i’ll pause it because the discordance of it all sets off the mood established from the first part of the song. But often I can appreciate what it does in comparison. Reminds me a bit of a fluctuating temper tantrum. Just being overemotional and not sure of how to express it, culminating in the cacophony in the end.

11. Blue Spotted Tail
Another favourite. This is very different from the other songs on the album. Much more standard acoustic track, simple vocals and simple lyric structure. But it’s catchy and easy enough to play a cover version of. Soft and mellow even if a bit melancholy in the lyrics. I think that’s to be expected from this album, though.

12. Grown Ocean
Last track of the album, fast paced and more complex, takes you back to the earlier tracks after Blue Spotted Tail. This probably has a lot of wide appeal as well. The music near the beginning reminds me of a car commercial. Was it used in a car commercial? If the vocals were a different person’s I could have been convinced this was by one of the modern bands that I have heard of yet don’t know any songs by name – Imagine Dragons, Fun? I think those are two of them. But this track lets the album end on a high note, leaves us with a message of optimism and better things to come.

So that’s it! A really solid album, great concept that carries through to the end. Helplessness Blues is the perfect choice for title track. Conveys the message of the album perfectly. I really hope to hear more new stuff from these guys, haven’t heard whether they’re producing anything more. Their 2008 album is also really worth a listen if you get through this one and want more.

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