If you live in the Pacific Northwest and follow music, or if you have opened The Stranger in the past 4 months, then you know that Fleet Foxes released an album. The band have been buzzworthy for months, with content about how they aren’t hippies, a super-hyped stint at Sasquatch, a gig opening for Wilco, and with our local indiepop tastemakers falling all over themselves to praise them.
But are they any good?
I’ll be frank. When the words “Celtic-flavored march with a searing Richard Thompson-style guitar line” and “pastorals” are used to describe indie rock music, I do not get excited. I am not a huge fan of PoMo (or is it Po-PoMo?) sea shantys (a la The Decemberists) or of new-wave Vaudeville (a la Of Montreal’s concept album Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse). I am a much more simple beast. I want my rock music to be, well, rock music. If I want an Appalachian-style folk pastoral I will go listen to some of my parents old bluegrass records.
But there’s a difference between what I like and what is good, and Fleet Foxes is good. I haven’t decided yet if I like it, but if you’re a fan of 60s/70s folk music (Simon & Garfunkel, Crosby Stills & Nash, etc.) you will enjoy this album quite a bit. Admittedly, I’m slightly bored by it, but I have found myself going back to it at various points during this past week when work was stressing me out and letting the rich and easy melodies carry me away.
Plus, “He Doesn’t Know Why” is shatteringly gorgeous.
There’s something that rubs me the wrong way about “White Winter Hymnal” though, and I think it’s because it veers a little too close to plain old traditional southern gospel music (minus the God part) and it strikes me as a little bit like the dude who wears a cape to class every day in college just to be weird. In other words, a little annoying. Sure, he’s not doing anything to you personally, and the cape looks pretty good, you have to admit, but there’s that weird mixture of jealousy and anger you feel toward him because a) he won’t conform and b) wearing a cape is kind of stupid. Or maybe I’m just wound up too tight to enjoy neo-hymnals:
Like, you know. It’s good. But, eh. Yawn.
What I like very much about Fleet Foxes, though, is their obvious ability to string together a ridiculous amount of instruments into a unified sound. Acoustic guitar, at least three different kinds of drums, bells, multi-harmonied vocals, slide guitars , organs and horns all make an appearance, but whereas sometimes I feel like Arcade Fire (who use a similar number of instruments) can sound like noise with little purpose of melody (side note: I know I am alone in that assessment since they are one of the most beloved bands currently, but I saw them in concert in September and thought that about 50% of their songs were just a bunch of noise), Fleet Foxes’ gentle use of their music virtuoso blends everything together in winding harmonies that feel both easy and natural. “Quiet Houses” is a great example of that:
A band with more misplaced bravado would have made a very different song, but Fleet Foxes are content to let the vocals and harmonies float effortlessly above the music and let the music lend atmosphere rather than be the focus. Yet the sound is very distinct, and it’s nice to hear a fresh, truly unique voice coming out of the upper-left of the country. Ultimately, the fact that they sound “distinct,” might be their downfall. They have to be careful not to sound the same on subsequent albums. It will be interesting to see where they go from here.
I don’t know if I’ll ever go see Fleet Foxes live, unless I go to the Wilco show. I am much more rocktastic. But I find their music good and pleasant and I wish them a long career of making interesting – if perhaps not exactly rockin’ – music.