3 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Okay, so maybe all the music worth listening to wasn't recorded before 1978. In another attempt to review something current, I recently put aside my pessimistic attitude toward today's music and went on what proved to be a desperate quest. While grunting my way through the CD racks I picked a copy of Mojo Magazine, one of England's most revered magazines, mainly because it had an article about Rod Evans, Deep Purple's first (and best) lead singer. The issue also contained the editor's picks for the best albums of 2008, and sitting at number one was the debut album by Fleet Foxes. I salivated. I respect Mojo's opinions, but when they're wrong, they're as off base as Fannie Mae's Board of Directors. (It was Mojo that predicted British hard rockers The Darkness would be the next big group four years ago. Ever heard of them?). I could visualize some of the phrases in my review, "...not so Fleet Foxes," "Seattle-based band not so foxy." Then I sat down and listened...
My vote for album of the year still goes to Steve Winwood's "Nine Lives," which proved he's got twice as much talent as musicians half his age, or James Hunter's "The Hard Way." Despite Hunter's ineptitude on guitar, he's a soulful, passionate vocalist in the tradition of, well, Steve Winwood. But as I listened to the flavor of the day, The Foxes' music coursed through me like sap on a vine, slowly, steadily warming my soul... Up until The Foxes, the last good things to come out of Seattle were Heart and Edgar Martinez -- and that was way back in the 80s.
The Foxes (vocalist/guitarist Robin Pecknold, nimble guitarist Skyler Skjelset, Plains Indian inspired drummer Josh Tillman, multi-instrumentalist Casey Wescott and somber bassist Christian Wargo), have re-invented Elizabethan folk/rock, taking a page from the playbooks of Renaissance, Fairport Convention, Curved Air, and The October Project. Pecknold has cited The Zombies' "Odessey And Oracle" album as his childhood Holy Grail. It's a leg up for me if you've listened to lead singer Colin Blunstone's gossamer voice, let alone if you know who he is. The Foxes are also fans of a prerequisite obscure cult figure, acid-folkie Joanna Newsome. They also owe a debt to Traffic's flautist Chris Wood, whose influence is felt in the instrumental "Heard Them Stirring." Add in traces of The Band's rustic, woodsy storytelling and Crosby, Stills and Nash's head-spinning harmonies, plus Phil Ek's mystic production, and The Foxes have created Lord of the Rings music.
Another highlight is "Your Protector," which gallops along on the notes of a ghostly flute, giving it a revved up "John Barleycorn" feel. The band also cooks up an Incan accompaniment suggesting someone listened to Simon and Garfunkel's "El Condor Pasa." "Quiet Horses" is a medieval celebration in the tradition of Renaissance or Fotheringay, and "Blue Ridge Mountains" puts Wescott's Chinatown piano upfront. Indian war drums dominate the instrumental "Heard Them Stirring" which is airy and atmospheric like Chris Wood's headless horseman music or the mournful mosaics Peter Green and Danny Kirwan created for Fleetwood Mac during the band's "Then Play On" period, when Green was going mad and Kirwan was battling his own wraiths. "Oliver Jones" is the perfect coda that recalls the gentle ballads of Nick Drake and bookends the opener, "Sun It Rises."
The throw-all-our-influences-in-a-bucket approach doesn't always succeed, but even the group's failures are intriguing. "Ragged Wood" isn't just ragged, it's out of control. The band should never attempt to rock out. The songs darts, stops and restarts on a dime, Tillman hits his snare with the incessant energy of a drum machine, but the atypical pacing causes Skjelset to hit some embarrassingly bad off-kilter notes, and brings out the worst in Pecknold, whose voice climbs and crashes like Alfalfa of "The Little Rascals." Pecknold's vocal shortcomings are also exposed in the next cut, "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song." Without the other member's harmonies, the lead fox's voice never comes around the mountain.
Like I said, Pecknold's flat as sheet metal vocals are the one gnawing flaw with the group's sound. Most of the time he's masked by the reflective ensemble harmonies, but when Pecknold ventures out on his own, searching for a key to sing in, he sounds lost. Blame Bob Dylan. (Why not? I blame Bob for just about everything.) I neglected to mention before that among the group's influences is a love affair with Dylan's "Blood On The Tracks" album, which actually has one or two tolerable vocals by mucus-blocked Bob. Pecknold has absorbed the best of Dylan, creating visual fairy tales with his lyrics, but he also projects the worst of Mr. Zimmerman, singing in a snoozy, bland tone that sounds like the city of Seattle spontaneously expelling gas. When Pecknold does climb out of his vocal doldrums, he shouts like Pee Wee Herman having discovered, well, his Herman. Watch out Robin. Flat line singing eventually ='s boredom.
In an era when harmony is now the name for a dating website rather than a muscial requirement, Fleet Foxes deserve credit for bringing back a lost art. They may not have the album of the year, but they have the album of the moment, and if they can get their lead singer to stay on key, they might have something...