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Customer Review

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Step Inward, A Step Backward, September 9, 2011
This review is from: Helplessness Blues (MP3 Music)
This is an album that certainly rewards repeat listening---when I first heard it, I certainly wasn't as immediately arrested by its sound as I was by Fleet Foxes' previous efforts. However, after a few listens you'll start noticing the interesting musical features of many of the songs here: the spacey tonal shift of Helplessness Blues, the insistent, strummed undercurrents of Montezuma that crest in the later parts of the song, and so on. That's good stuff, and if it were any band other than Fleet Foxes, I'd just be thrilled to have it.

However, Fleet Foxes' previous work was so surpassingly brilliant that this album ultimately just feels lackluster. What it comes down to, for me, is the poetics of the songs here. Many are lauding the album for its increased "introspectiveness," which is certainly present in spades here. Most of the songs feel as though they were written about the singer, his woes, wonderings and such. All songs have some sort of autobiographical element to them, of course; but one of the incredibly refreshing features of their earlier work was that it didn't incessantly prattle on about all the trite soul-searching of the people who wrote it. It accomplished its deeply human effects much more through folk themes and suggestive storytelling (as in my personal favorites by them, "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" and "Blue Ridge Mountains"). The problem with so much indie music is that it feels like an "Existentialism for Dummies" course all told in only a slightly different way. Fleet Foxes really pushed against that grain in their previous work, and I was sad to see them fall into the indie "oh me" mode here, certainly in terms of their lyrics, and marginally in terms of the music backing it. Oddly enough, their previous work inspired more introspection and feeling in listeners because it wasn't so awkwardly self referential.

Ironically, some of the songs seem to acknowledge their lack of inspiration and to take that lack as inspiration, which is heart-rending in a sense, and almost interesting. The title track feels like an anthem directed to Fleet Foxes' listeners, promising something more insightful later, when they've got this sophomoric angst out of their system ("... serving something beyond me. But I don't know what that will be; I'll get back to you someday soon you'll see"). And I certainly will keep them, and even this album, on the shelf; but I do hope they find their orchard next time around.
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Initial post: Jan 4, 2012, 4:11:15 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 5, 2012, 9:17:36 AM PST
saturnine says:
Although this review details with lucidity everything I dislike about Helplessness Blues; in the end I ultimately rank it near their self-titled album as it remains a beautiful aural experience. Likewise, it required a few turns to truly appreciate the album & nothing grabbed me the way "White Winter Hymnal" did previously ("Battery Kinzie" would be the nearest offender). And while the aimless lyrics of the title track are indeed irritating, when the song shifts & Pecknold pines for his orchard (& the guitar is divinely plucked at 3:24), I find it transcendental. "The Plains / Bitter Dancer" is possibly the least introspective track & it is a sheer delight; from the instrumental first half to the content of the lyrics. "Sim Sala Bim" may have the most traditional folk tendency & its adroit turns of phrase (e.g. "Lighting a match on the suitcase's latch in the fading of light") are evocative of an arcane journeyman who may or may not be malevolent. Nevertheless, the purely acoustic numbers cannot match the graceful beauty of "Oliver James" from their debut.

Regardless of the flaws you & I perceive in it, I cannot shake the album from my head nor cd player. If it was anything other than a Fleet Foxes album, I would consider it a masterpiece (Pecknold & Co. shake their head at impossible fans).

Here's to everyone finding their orchard & long live the Fleet Foxes.
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