Tag Archives: Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes ‘Helplessness Blues’ – Review

5 May

On their classic 2008 debut, Fleet Foxes told us that ‘Memory is a fickle siren song, I didn’t understand’. That album’s long-awaited follow-up, ‘Helplessness Blues’, is about the process of trying to understand; it is an album steeped in memories. ‘Remember when you had me cut your hair?’ Robin asks on ‘Sim Bala Bim’. On ‘Bedouin Dress’ he sees an ex-lover who is wearing a ‘Geometric patterned dress, gleaming white, just as I recall.’ Practically every song sees Robin fretting over one memory or another, before usually coming to the conclusion that at some point, somehow, he got old and alone.

Of course, to try to tie this album down to a single theme is silly, this is one of the most richly textured albums I’ve heard in a long time. Symbolic references to fountains, light, dreams and time spring up in virtually every other song and you could easily point out several major themes linking the tracks, memory is just the one I decided to mention. ‘Helplessness Blues’ is a highly anticipated album, and the pressures of following the debut clearly got to Robin, but this is far from a thrown together follow-up that retreads old ground, it is incredibly detailed and magnificently ambitious whilst feeling totally understated.

Fleet Foxes never re-invented the wheel, but they were so much better at what they did than everybody else that it felt almost like they had reinvented the wheel. Everything from the artwork to the harmonies to the production was just flawless. This time around they haven’t got the shock factor to blow people away, so I half suspected them to go in a completely different direction – but thankfully they haven’t;  They do push the boat out at times, but for the most part it’s all fairly familiar. That said, there is nothing on ‘Helplessness Blues’ to match ‘Fleet Foxes’ best moments,  and strangely enough, the highlights here are essentially solo songs. ‘Someone You Admire’ is a gloriously restrained song about conflicting emotions, and ‘Blue Spotted Tail’ is one of a few songs where Robin ponders his place in the universe, alone and with his guitar.

The other Foxes grand contributions are a lot less obvious than they were on the debut. It seems to me that Robin is harmonising with himself a lot of the time; the type of a capella sing-songs that defined the debut are rarer to find (although they still sound brilliant when they do show up). Instrumentally the album is fairly traditional; there is the odd foray into the strange and unexpected (such as the violin on ‘Bedouin Dress’ and ‘An Argument’) but don’t expect a synth pop or dubstep diversion. The epic ‘The Shrine/An Argument’ is the musical centerpiece, an 8 minute exploration of folky ambiance, loud-quiet dynamics and choral chanting.

This is an album of contrasts; many songs are more condensed and straightforward than anything on the debut, but several are far longer and more complex. There are some of the band’s most melodic and beautiful moments on here but there are also some of their darkest. You get poppy moments (‘Lorelai’, ‘Grown Ocean’ and ‘Battery Kinzie’) followed by very un-poppy moments (‘Bitter Dancer’, The Cascades’, ‘The Shrine’). The sheer amount going on makes ‘Helplessness Blues’ feel longer than it actually is and I wonder if this is an easy album to admire but a difficult one to love; some of the things that make it so impressive and occasionally brilliant are the things that hold it back. Just maybe it’s a bit too ambitious and try-hard for its own good.

I’m still trying to understand ‘Helplessness Blues’ to be honest, there are so many contrasts and contradictions that just thinking about it makes my head spin. It can’t hope to match the impact of the band’s debut, but it pulls of the difficult job of staying true to the bands roots whilst subtly pushing their sound in some new directions. Overall, this is one of the year’s best releases and it practically defines the term ‘grower’, so don’t be surprised to see this at the top of many end of year best of lists.

8.5/10


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New From Fleet Foxes

3 Feb

Just about everyone agrees that Fleet Foxes are brilliant, they made my (and just about everyone elses) favourite album of 2008, so obviously I can’t wait to hear album number two. ‘Helplessness Blues’ is out on May 2nd, produced by Phil Elk, and you can hear the title track (and see the artwork) below.

Beach House ‘Teen Dream’ – Review

31 Jan

There have been some brilliant coming of age albums in recent years. My favourite would probably be M83’s fantastic ‘Saturdays = Youth’ but now it has a close competitor. ‘Teen Dream’ is Beach House’s third album and it plays with the themes of youth, regret and longing.

Beach House are on the same American and English labels as Fleet Foxes (sub pop and Bella Union), and they would be a familiar band to compare them to. Both share an interest in harmonies and brooding lyrics and both have a retro charm that also sounds very 21st century. I think there is something a bit deeper about Beach House though. Their music isn’t as pretty or catchy as Fleet Foxes – it is darker and more intense. In a way they also sound like a more accessable, more dreamy Grizzly Bear. There is an intimate sparseness to this record that is very reminiscent of both Grizzly Bear and also The XX. ‘Teen Dream is a much more traditional album than those two but it is no less interesting.

As I said at the beginning, I interpreted this album as being about longing and regret. Their lyrics are often annoyingly vague or cryptic but you just need to hear the vocals or the winding keyboard to understand the sense of loss on this record. ‘It’s incomplete without you…It’s happening again.’ We aren’t told what’s happening or what’s incomplete but it sounds pretty brilliant. And in fairness I suspect the band were after that dreamy, snapshot effect in their lyrics. The subject matter is personal and nostalgic – you pick up the pieces and and some will make sense to you, some you guess only make sense to the singer.

Beach House’s albums have always been a bit distant and nicely experimental. That’s still true of ‘Teen Dream’, but musically the sparseness has developed into a more straightforward and warm atmosphere. The album even sounds intimate to the point of being slightly claustrophobic, but all things considered it’s a lovely, comforting and very old fashioned type of record. ’10 Mile Stereo’ and ‘Real Love’ almost break down with emotion, it feels at times like the cheap drum machine won’t be able to hold the other instruments together, such is the power coming out of the speakers.

Enough can’t be said about the power of sequencing and post production. My Biggest complaint with Grizzly Bear was that the track listing was not consistent or cohesive enough. Here Beach House have made a much more concise and thought out record, that doesn’t quite reach the dizzy heights of ‘Veckatimest’ but does work better as a unified whole. ‘Zebera’ is a powerful opener that introduces the listener to the band’s trademark style, and this is followed by the more sombre ‘Silver Soul’ and then the familiar ‘Norway. The moments of darkness sit well next to the moments of light largely thanks to the track order and the consistent simplicity of the instruments.

‘Walk in the park’ is a real highlight. It is memorable for a repetitive organ cycle, a simple drum beat and some sadly nostalgic lyrics. There is a great warmth to both the sound and lyrics.On Norway the keyboard swirls and moans like it’s got seasickness – it adds to the otherworldly feel of the song. Eventually the album drifts away with the closer ‘Take Care’, the fade out is slow, you hear the end coming before it arrives.  The whole album really does feel a bit like a dream, the music is out of focus and the meanings are just out of reach.

‘Are you not the same as you used to be?’ This is from the album’s standout track ‘Used to be’ and it sums up the record nicely. No they aren’t quite the same as they used to be, but this album isn’t a huge step away from their two other very solid albums. ‘Teen Dream’ is an album that works well if you listen to it at the right place, right time. It certainly isn’t an album for all tastes or moods but there is no faulting the band at what they do. This is the record that will take them to bigger and better things.

8.5/10


TOP 25 ALBUMS of 2008

10 Jun

I’ve been doing top 50 albums and tracks every year since 2004, and have them stored away under lock and key somewhere! I may put them up, I may not – depends on if I can be bothered, doesn’t seem that important. But I think 2008’s is important because it’s still pretty fresh, so with no further babble here is the top 25 (I decided to condense it down) albums and tracks of 2008 as decided by moi.

ALBUMS

1. Day and Age – The Killers

2008 was the year some of 2004’s greatest hopes – Kaiser Chiefs, Keane, Bloc Party, The Zutons and Razorlight – came back with third albums that simply wouldn’t do. None fell flat on their faces (OK maybe Razorlight) but none have lived up to the promise of thier debuts and this showed in both reviews and chart performance. Bands that once had a shot of being the next big stadium group were reduced back to playing small venues, a stark reminder of the way our society love to build a band up only to knock them down.

One band stood out however, by coming out with not only their strongest album yet but one that sold well, was well received, produced a hit single and showed they are perhaps the real stadium band of the future. The group were The Killers and the album was ‘Day and Age’.

Rarely do a band come back with a third album as self assured, confident and versatile as ‘Day and Age’. The Killers were unafraid to try their hand at anything, whether it be the 80’s pop gleam of loosing touch, the overblown ELO-esque grandeur of Spaceman, the calypso tinged ‘I Can’t Stay’ or the melancholy howl of ‘Goodnight, travel well’. Over Ten tracks The Killers produced a spectacular pop album of all killer no filler, it really sounded like it could have easily produced 8 or 9 hits. At the same time it works as a coherent album, they swerve from genre to genre whilst at the same time managing to keep it  recognisably The Killers. It reminds me of Thriller, in the way it borrows from differnt styles and twists them into the shape it wants – and still comes out intact, as a solid 10 track piece of art.

‘Day and Age’ is top of my list because it sounds like a classic album, an album that 2009 will be remembered for, the album The Killers (one of the decade’s most consistent bands) will be remembered for. It’s also the one I keep coming back to.

2. Do You Like Rock Music – British Sea Power

British Sea Power’s third album is as wonderful as could have been hoped. Their debut has revealed itself over time to be perhaps the defining British, Indie debut of the decade and ‘Do you Like Rock Music’ is a magnificent leap forward. Arcade Fire and Godspeed you Black Emperor loom over the album, BSP wear their influences on their sleeve, but this is at the same time an eccentric British record in the grand tradition of Echo and The Bunnymen, Joy Division and David Bowie. Non traditional influences are less easy to spot but clearly there, from the verse of John Betjeman to the drunken hymns of The Wurzels. ‘Do you like Rock Music’ is a fantastic British record, and everyone should own a copy.

3. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend

The perfect summer band, the perfect summer record. I was impressed when I heard the early Vampire Weekend demos and wasn’t let down when the debut album proper landed in early 2008. I seriously haven’t stopped listening to it since, it’s as fresh as the morning I brought it. Spiky and twisted pop music with African influences to set them apart from the crowd. Ultimately the strength is in the songs – ‘Oxford Comma’, ‘A-Punk’ and ‘I Stand Corrected’ for starters.

4. Oracular Spectacular – Mgmt

There isn’t much to say that hasn’t already been said about this great debut album from one of the more eccentric acts of 2008. Wild, eclectic and deranged are three ways of describing ‘Oracular Spectacular’ and whether you hear it on the dancefloor, on the radio or stereo system this album will find a way into your hearts.

5. Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes

An album of staggering beauty and simplicity, this is a loud hurrah for melody and harmony. The vocals are touching, the playing is rustic and steeped in Americana, folk and pop history. You can smell deep America just from listening too ‘Oliver James’. It’s not haunting as Bon Iver’s record is, but is wonderful in an equally earthy and essential way. Top Marks for a debut of extraordinary promise.

6. The Age Of The Understatement – The Last Shadow Puppets
7. Glasvegas – Glasvegas
8. 21 – Mystery Jets
9. Only By The Night – Kings Of Leon
10. For Emma, Forever Ago – Bon Iver
11. Man In The Mirror – Rhymefest
12. All Hour Cymbals – Yeasayer
13. 808’s and Heartbreaks – Kanye West
14. Volume One – She and Him
15. Fantasy Black Channel – Late of the Pier
16. Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles
17. Death magnetic – Metallica
18. Perfect Symmetry – Keane
19. That Lucky Old Sun – Brian Wilson
20. Falling off Lavender Bridge – Lightspeed Champion
21. Intimacy – Bloc Party
22. Saturdays = Youth – M83
23. Reality Check – The Teenagers
24. Angles – Dan Le Sac Vs Scrobius Pip
25. Primary Transmission – Broadcaster

TRACKS

1. Time To Pretend – Mgmt
2. Two Doors Down – Mystery Jets
3. A-Punk – Vampire Weekend
4. Paper Planes – M.I.A
5. Kids – MGMT
6. White Winter Hymnal – Fleet Foxes
7. Crimewave – Crystal Castles
8. Geraldine – Glasvegas
9. Death – White lies
10. Sex On Fire – Kings Of Leon
11. Standing Next To Me – Last Shadow Puppets
12. The Bears are coming – Late of the Pier
13. No Lucifer – British Sea Power
14. Its My Own Cheating heart that makes me cry – Glasvegas
15. In This City – Iglu and Hartly
16. Electric Feel – MGMT
17. Ulysees – Franz Ferdinand
18. Ready For the Floor – Hot Chip
19. Spiralling – Keane
20. No Sex For Ben – The Rapture
21. DNVO – Justice
22. Age Of The Understatement – The Last Shadow Puppets
23. How to Dance – Black kids
24. Human – The Killers
25. Always where I need to Be – The Kooks