Influenced: The Lumineers, Laura Marling, The War On Drugs, Real Estate, Beach House, Grizzly Bear, Ben Howard, The Tallest Man On Earth, Mumford & Sons, Band Of Horses, Local Natives, Future Islands, Lord Huron, alt-J, First Aid Kit, Mac DeMarco, Father John Misty, Angel Olsen, Big Thief, Whitney, Kevin Morby, Mount Eerie, The Lemon Twigs
Influenced by: Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, Neil Young, The Band, The Zombies, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood Mac, Elliott Smith, Wilco, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Mountain Goats, My Morning Jacket, Iron & Wine, Bright Eyes, Sufjan Stevens, The Shins, Midlake, Modest Mouse, Animal Collective
With a work song resembling a harmonized couplet about a red squirrel warping into a musical spectacle that sounds like and is about the rising of the sun, the Seattle-sourced outfit Fleet Foxes start their seminal debut album Fleet Foxes. The cycle of life and death, the passage of time, friendship and (brotherly) love being the focus, the lush harmonies lure the listener into the seemingly innocent bucolic landscape, only to unravel into something more peculiar.
With the sound of their first record being both strong and subtle, modern but with the air of the old, Fleet Foxes managed to carve out their own identity in the indie music world amidst the folk craze of 2008, as well as intriguing the listeners with every subsequent effort, with Pitchfork labelling every new release to date as Best New Music. Whether it was the more deft Helplessness Blues in 2011 or their dynamic, expansive, pummeling come-back Crack-Up in 2017, it is undeniable that Fleet Foxes was a statement of identity, their impressive vocal harmonies, memorable melodies and poetic lyrics becoming ‘their thing’. Balancing the line between Baroque-like, yet uplifting folk and more sombre touches of rock and Americana, Fleet Foxes are not only the band you are almost guaranteed to find in a Winter/Fall/Relax-in-your-Wooden-Cabin playlist along the likes of Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens and Grizzly Bear at your local indie coffee shop, but already a modern indie rock classic band whose work is to be analysed, interpreted and celebrated.
Fleet Foxes has undergone several transformations over the years. Starting out as a duo consisting of lead vocalist/lyricist Robert Pecknold and guitarist Skyler Skjelset channeling their shared passion for Bob Dylan and Neil Young, they got reinforcements and became The Pineapples until a local Seattle band protested as they already had claimed the name. Adding Casey Wescott, Bryn Lumsden and Nicholas Peterson, the group became Fleet Foxes – the name meaning something “evocative of some weird English activity like fox hunting” – and caught the eye of producer Phil Ek (Modest Mouse, The Shins, Band Of Horses) to record a self-titled EP.
Gaining prominence through then-reigning MySpace and conquering festivals such as SXSW in Austin, Texas, Fleet Foxes became the buzz band of 2008, as their uncannily nostalgic and harmony-tinged tunes gained them a record deal with Sub Pop, a notable Seattle-based grunge label. Still, the band is more or less a family affair, as Aja, Pecknold‘s sister deals with the band‘s management, his mother with book-keeping, and his filmmaker brother Sean Pecknold is the main brain behind their music videos. Making their first official musical statement with yet another, more cohesive EP titled Sun Giant and receiving further lashings of praise, Fleet Foxes found themselves with one of the most highly anticipated debuts in recent memory.
In the same year, after mostly recording in Robert Pecknold‘s basement, they released Fleet Foxes – an unstaggering, bold, bright collection of pastoral sounding tunes that narrate the tenderness in friendships as well as invoking the marvel for the great outdoors. Without losing momentum, they released a more mature, less sunny, introspective sophomore effort Helplessness Blues in 2011, which got nominated as Best Folk Album at the Grammys. Yet, the intense past years as a band had its cost – the drummer at the time, Josh Tillman, felt like he had outgrown Fleet Foxes and quit, setting off on his own path and becoming the polarizing, enigmatic figure of Father John Misty that we know today. Fleet Foxes took a break – a long one, to grow as people, as Robert Pecknold said he felt “one-dimensional” and didn‘t want to “milk” the hype that has been built around Fleet Foxes without him feeling like there was mature musical material to have hype about.
In the six years, each was to its own, pursuing other musical projects, Pecknold curiously enrolling to Columbia University, studying literature and art and taking up surfing. Their eventual come-back, 2017‘s Crack-Up proved to be worth the wait, with its wider lyrical focus, more abstract song structures and new found dynamism. Fleet Foxes handsomely recovered their place in the music industry as the “very impressive indie folk guys”, but let’s take a look at their first serious step, that forged and perfected the Fleet Foxes sound a decade ago.
The artwork of Fleet Foxes is a peculiar one. Rural, busy, intricate and seemingly innocent at first glance, just like the album itself, it starts to show its obscurities with a more intense, careful look-through. It’s an oil-on-oil medieval scene called ‘Netherlandish Proverbs’ by Dutch Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, in which the various subjects symbolize Dutch proverbs and idioms. There‘s a guy whose head is stuck in a black, religious sphere, there are pies on a roof that become the target for a guy with a crossbow, and a woman who’s trying to tie a devilish figure up in cloth.
If the album and the cover art share a certain ambiguity at first glance, they don‘t exactly share the subject material itself, as the album is neither full of proverbs or has absurdist imagery. There is a lack of modern life symbols, which is a bit strange for an album written in 2008, even a folk one. Robert Pecknold brushes it off as: “The music was already sounding very rural, so it didn’t make sense to start adding lyrics about receiving e-mails and watching TV.”
Therefore the visuals that are evoked by listening to Fleet Foxes are of the more traditional, bucolic folk-rock album kind – misty, almost smouldering mountains, never-ending golden pastures and glistening deep green forests, with the occasional metaphor about strawberries on snow or longing for meadowlarks and hummingbirds as a metaphor for lovers. There‘s a certain juxtaposition between the visual associations and the actual lyrical themes of Fleet Foxes, as the usual positive associations of folk, reminiscing of a time less complicated, suggest sunny themes and more or less happy observations about life, work and love, whereas lyrically Fleet Foxes have a tinge of more sombre themes like loss of innocence, falling out of touch, platonic affection and perhaps the morality of a murderer. There‘s also a strong sense of time as a lot of the lyrics focus on the changing seasons and rise and fall of day, as Spring, Winter, morning and sudden darkness are often the backdrop of these songs. The overall landscape is more or less abstract, “somewhere out there”, and only once in a while the listener is pinned down, to the Blue Ridge Mountains, Beringer Hill or at a cabin that Pecknold‘s grandfather once built.
The level of abstraction in Robert Pecknold‘s lyrics suggest that it might as well be analysed like poetry, or not analysed at all, as he himself has expressed that he is not too keen on disclosing what exactly Fleet Foxes’ songs are about. The bright and grand sounding ‘Sun It Rises’ is a celebration of light and the dawn of day, even though the first lines are about a red squirrel in the morning which might strike the listener as quite random. Apparently the source of these lyrics is an inside joke from traveling around England and Norway and danger signs about red squirrels being the big bad in the whole grey squirrel competition. The joke is wrapped in a very Southern Appalachian melody sung a-cappella, drawing the parallel between the start of Fleet Foxes with the start of day.
‘White Winter Hymnal’ follows suit, as one of the best known songs off the album. It resembles a work tune that anyone could sing along to while doing housework, yet is about how people grow apart in life through adolescence. It houses one of the more memorable visuals: “And, Michael, you would fall / And turn the white snow / Red as strawberries in the summertime” that are incredibly visually potent when the listener realises that it‘s probably not about a trick of nature and possibly about bleeding to death. Interestingly enough, the vocals are clear and jolly as ever, the perfect indie earworm.
‘Ragged Wood’ invites the listener into a lively romantic rendezvous, with hints to Richard Bach‘s “Jonathan Livingston Seagull“, while ‘Tiger Mountain Peasant Song’ switches into minor-key and narrates the searching of a dead body while the subject pleads to the shadow: “Dear shadow alive and well / How can the body die?” while coming to terms with death and the mental hardships that come with guilt. ‘Quiet Houses’ is a track that most perfectly captures the ease and effortlessness that Fleet Foxes carry in the vocal department, where the harmonic writing of the voices blends all of them seamlessly, while the tambourine and the guitar line provide variety.
‘He Doesn‘t Know Why‘ and ‘Blue Ridge Mountains‘ are the two tracks that most prominently express brotherly love and affection, balancing the grandiose visuals against the emotional narrative. It‘s interesting to point out that Fleet Foxes is the album where the occasional unexpected minor chord which changes the landscape of the song and make it fresh originated from. It can be found in ‘Tiger Mountain Peasant Song’ first and traced through Helplessness Blues and Crack-Up. ‘Your Protector’ is probably the song that most resembles a traditional sing-along jam with a ridiculously catchy chorus: “As you lay to die beside me, baby / On the morning that you came / Would you wait for me? / The other one would wait for me” with a sneaky flute part hidden in the mix. The album ends with ‘Oliver James’, another excellent example of how bright and melodic the vocals of Fleet Foxes are, especially Robert Pecknold’s in this instance, as he narrates a story similar to that of Moses in the river as a baby along to a simple accompaniment of acoustic guitar.
If Crack-up feels like dusk, air ripe with the smell of spring and sea water, then Fleet Foxes feels like a stark sunny day that starts with a misty morning and ends with the most golden sunset while throughout the day the sun was up and strong above your head. The vocal harmonies are stark, almost overbearing at times, decorative and could stand alone without the instrumental as they carry the heft of the melody on this album, and make Fleet Foxes’ songs some of the prime material for a cappella performances of modern folk music. The album feels like a head on confrontation with nature as well as the emotional story lines that Robert Pecknold has hidden between the lush vocal harmonies. There‘s minimal use of reverb, unlike Crack-Up, where the songs feel far away and less in touch with physical reality.
Fleet Foxes is a ridiculously strong debut album, one of the very best of the Noughties, bright and rural, probably the best folk rock that the decade saw. Selling well over half a million copies in Britain and staying in the charts for over a year, the record virtually single-handedly saved the now-flourishing Bella Union label, which released it in the UK and Europe. It also brought back Baroque-esque vocals and writing to the pop music table, and made folk cool again. More notably, it kicked off Fleet Foxes’ impressive music career which is strong to this day, no matter what Robert Pecknold himself would think about their past work. That self-criticism is of no concern for the audience, and Fleet Foxes’ fanbase has regularly expressed that their debut album is a work of art worthy of acknowledgement. (Aiste Samuchovaite)
Listen to Fleet Foxes by Fleet Foxes here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Tags: 10 years old, 10th anniversary, Aiste Samuchovaite, Bella Union, Casey Wescott, classic 00s, Craig Curran, Fleet Foxes, Nicholas Peterson, Robin Pecknold, Skyler Skjelset, Sub Pop
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