Don’t trust photographs because they’re nowhere near as powerful as genuine memories. That may as well be Fleet Foxes motto for their debut record on Sub Pop. At least there’s one band that believes their music should be more than the guitars, drums, and voices that compose it.
The liner notes for Fleet Foxes’ self-titled album are simple and function as something of a manifesto: music, more than any other artistic medium, is a chance for someone or a whole group of people to perform a magic trick. Ask anyone who loves music and they’ll tell you that certain albums and songs remind them of particular places and people; loved ones who may now be gone, good and bad times, or particular evenings spent driving for the sake of wanderlust all somehow take sustenance from the songs that accompanied them. The trick is that the memories enhanced by the music come to life more readily and with more force than memories triggered in any other way. So when this quintet begins their album with “Red Squirrel, Sun Rises,” it is little wonder that the immediate sensation is one of time travel: the band takes its audience backwards, both musically and metaphorically, in order to stir up the soul still barely clinging to pop music.
Comparisons to folk, country, and bluegrass have littered descriptions of this band. All such descriptions are a failure on the part of the writer to acknowledge the depth and breadth of which pop music is capable. Yes, there are fiddles, mandolins, flutes, acoustic guitars, and other distinctly American instruments on each of these 11 songs, but suggesting that this band is thus writing one pop-rock-country hybrid after another is as simple-minded as calling your best friend Allen Ginsberg because he’s gay and has a notebook filled with poetry lying around somewhere. The truth of the matter is that Fleet Foxes has more in common with The Byrds, Jason Molina, Will Oldham, and My Morning Jacket than Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, or Bob Wills. Fleet Foxes evocative nature is a result of their superb song-writing, simple but massive arrangements, and Robin Pecknold’s nearly flawless voice. With that in mind it is fair to say that many of these songs have a pastoral quality. The often simplistic melodies and strummed guitars harmonize perfectly with Pecknold’s colorful lyrics about marching through the snow, the strength of family, the desperation that accompanies death, and escapism. None of them veer off into that no-mans-land of personal confession and half-hidden anger. Pecknold confronts each of his topics with delicacy and an understanding that directness is not always the best route to capturing the audience’s imagination.
Nevertheless, there are moments where the music becomes dramatic and all the great human emotions burst forth. The soul of the music is only partially in Pecknold’s voice; the entire band is capable of erupting with unrestrained energy and then suddenly backing off to allow for a deep breath or a precious moment of silence. The epic rise and fall of “Your Protector” and the rambling “Ragged Wood” reveal a band so refined and in touch with each other that I’m often left wondering if the songs were actually written or if they somehow spontaneously came into existence. The natural ebb and flow of some of these songs make them feel pre-destined somehow. And all the vocal harmonies that the band is capable of only enhance my image of them as very careful, calculating musicians. Yet, the music is organic and natural, the product of the mind and the soul. These musicians genuinely believe that what they’re making as a group has some power, something beyond trite, stylistic aping and nostalgia. In short, Fleet Foxes has recorded the best album I have heard this year. They have come to the studio with a purpose and have succeeded in suffusing their record with it.