Fleet Foxes – ‘Helplessness Blues’

Fleet Foxes are the brainchild of predominant song writer, Rob Pecknold. Starting in 2006, the band have released 2 full albums and an EP to huge acclaim. Back in September 2011 I started reviewing their second and latest album ‘Helplessness Blues.’ Below is roughly (with some edits and additional thoughts) a direct review of what I thought upon that listen:
Sitting down with the window open, the outside chaos flowing in with an incense stick burning, I put my monitors on fairly loud to listen to the Fleet Foxes’ ‘Helplessness Blues’.
‘Montezuma’ begins with a picking passage on the guitar that continues throughout. The swelling chorus are a sparkling testament to the bands rich and   harmonies that trounce that of Simon & Garfunkel. They set a dynamic. The third verse is preceded by a transient march, a cacophony of fleeting delicate sounds. The third verse is purely Rob’s main vocals, harmonies and a tiny guitar hidden underneath. A terrific start and a great way of setting the album.
‘Bedouin Dress’ (a type of traditional dress), is a rhythmically more accented song. The folk violin and swing rimshot drums pin the track from the outset given a strikingly rich power without resulting to loud distorted guitars, slamming drums and over compression.
‘Sim Sala Bim’ (comes from Dante the Magician and is actually gibberish, the equivalent of Hocus Pocus) is a classic Fleet Foxes song. It features tap dancing sounds, piano, harps, bells, and a manor of organically produced noises. The concluding acoustic guitar and mandolin section is a presto of dance and a rampant beast, terrific conclusion.
‘Battery Kenzie’ initially my favourite track on the album, since replaced however. It features a flexing time signature but can be simplified to 4/4 (I believe, correct me if I’m wrong). It’s a stomping song with a drone throughout,   a musical cove like a diamond that is pretty to say the least.
‘The Plains/Bitter Dancer’ It starts with an accruing prelude to the Bitter Dancer section in 6/4. Starting of innocent and small. Low singing bowls, whilst it sounds minimals there are intricate levels of detail. Look at the credits list for what is played on the album and you soon realise your ears are tricking you, this is more than acoustic guitar, bass, drums and unequivocal harmonies. That may be the basis and root of the album. The final section switches between 4/4 and 6/4.
The title track ‘Helplessness Blues’ simply is a lyrical masterpiece. The opening line is strikingly rich in honesty, torment and acceptance. Just have a read.
“I was raised up believing I was somehow unique, like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see. And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me…”
That last line is pure genius and it fits this complex industrial folk theme splendidly. It scans weirdly when written down, but believe me the charming imagery and metaphors are simply as close to genius as possible. It’s the first album in a while that I’ve listened to where the lyrics have caught my attention rather than me putting them on the back burner and only really listening to them once I’ve dried up everything else. It is utter poetry.
‘The Cascades’ is a short instrumental piece, the instruments do all the talking. It is a delightful addition to the album however there is not much to say about it. A nice ‘intermission’.
‘Lorelai’ waltzes along with a shuffle drum. Watch out for the Mellotron flutes in the verses. The chorus’s simple singalong lyric ‘I was old news to you then..’ is charming and with bitterness. The song fades away it a lullaby at the hands of a lamellophone (musical box, kalimba style sounds) with stomping echoing the stereo field.
‘Someone You’d Admire’ is the only song an the album that feels a little bit like filler. It is a simple guitar ode nonetheless, it is overshadowed by the rest of the album. Not to say it is a bad song as it is the only song that does not have a reason strong enough for me to listen to it again.
Beginning with the picking trait of Robin Pecknold ‘The Shrine’ has one of the best delivered lines ‘Sunlight all over no matter what I do’, Robin shouts this from his gut. Starting with a harmonium, the ‘An Argument’ section
The third section begins with tibetan singing bowls and continue resonating over the vocals. Towards the end, the song has scratchy animal like noises from an array of instruments, mainly brass – a great way of the utilising and being unconventional. There is a jazz double bass that is so pleasing to the ears underpinning the concluding moments.
‘Blue Spotted Tail’ is a rhetorical dreamscape. Robin asks ‘Why in the night sky are the lights hung?’ Whilst this is also principally Rob on acoustic guitar and nothing else the lyrics and the simplistic nature make it a charmer and a great addition to the album.
As the end of ‘Blue Spotted Tail’ lingers and fades into the drum stick count in for ‘Grown Ocean.’ A finale of an album that is as mellow as fresh spring grass. It even sounds like Spring, the flutes tweet and the reverb envelopes the sound. It ends with the sound of bells and the outside secluded under an acapella finish. It makes you wonder.
My biggest fear is that due to the success and brilliance of this album, the brilliance will be lessened by copy cat outfits that were playing Artic Monkeys two years ago and are going to play Fleet Foxes tributes for another 7 years. It may already have started to happen, let’s not buy into it. The Fleet Foxes are good enough as it is. Even if there are copy cat acts, Fleet Foxes will always shine above them as long as the outfit progress and keep writing poetic melodies and lyrics.
The band, in particular lead writer Robin Peckfold, are extremely well read and have put an awful lot of thought into choosing the themes and mythological basis for this album. Believe me, I had to Google a lot to try and decipher this album. It is a good thing though. You feel like you are learning something whilst being entertained by one of the most unique albums at this moment.
‘Helplessness Blues’ is a triumph from start to finish. Organically produced, intricately weaved and most importantly simplistic and brilliant song writing on the surface with a igniting ability to bring you back each time. The only criticism is it is a mood and particular atmospheric album, so it can be a bit laborious if you’re not in the right frame of mind and you may be fooled into thinking it is too similar sounding track by track.
9/10 – As listed on iTunes the album is ‘Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy’; could not agree more.
  1. Montezuma – 3:37
  2. Bedouin Dress – 4:30
  3. Sim Sala Bim – 3:14
  4. Battery Kinzie – 2:49
  5. The Plains/Bitter Dancer – 5:54
  6. Helplessness Blues – 5:03
  7. The Cascades – 2:08
  8. Lorelai – 4:25
  9. Someone You’d Admire – 2:29
  10. The Shrine/An Argument – 8:07
  11. Blue Spotted Tail – 3:05
  12. Grown Ocean – 4:36