June 11, 2011

Playlist Week of 6-11-11

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues LP

* J.S. Bach: Trio Sonatas (London Baroque/Medlam) (Harmonia Mundi CD)†
* Handel: 12 Solo Sonatas, Op.1 (Academy of Ancient Music/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Handel: Concerti Grossi, Op.3 (Academy of Ancient Music/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi SACD)
* Handel: Organ Concertos, Op.7 (Academy of Ancient Music/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2SACD)
* Venice Baroque Orchestra (Marcon/Carmignola): Concerto Veneziano (Archiv Produktion CD)†
* John Coltrane: Live In Japan (d.1-2) (Impulse!/GRP 4CD)
* Sun Ra: Sub-Underground (Saturn LP>CDR)
* Anthony Braxton: Septet (Pittsburgh) 2008 (New Braxton House MP3)†
* Henry Threadgill’s Very Very Circus: Too Much Sugar For A Dime (Axiom/Island CD)
* George Benson: Breezin’ (Warner Bros./MoFi LP)
* Stanley Clarke: School Days (Epic/Friday Music LP)
* Chaka Khan: I Feel For You (Warner Bros. LP)
* Bob Marley & The Wailers: Rastaman Vibration (Island LP)
* The Who: Who’s Next (Deluxe Edition) (MCA/Universal 2CD)†/‡
* Grateful Dead: Go To Nassau (GDP/Arista 2CD)†
* Grateful Dead: Truckin’ Up To Buffalo: July 4, 1989 (GDP/Rhino 2CD)†
* Grateful Dead: Crimson, White & Indigo: Philadelphia, July 7, 1989 (GDP/Rhino 3CD+DVD)†
* Grateful Dead: Buckeye Lake Music Center, Hebron, OH 6-11-93 (SBD 3CDR)
* Carlos Santana & Buddy Miles: Live! (Columbia/Sony—Japan CD)
* The Band: Music From Big Pink (Capitol/MoFi SACD)
* Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: Déjà vu (Atlantic/MoFi LP)
* Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (Reprise/Warner Bros. 2-45RPM LP)
* King Crimson: Discipline (DGM CD)
* Sonic Youth: Bad Moon Rising (Homestead LP)
* Thurston Moore: Demolished Thoughts (Matador CD)†
* Thurston Moore & Tom Surgal: “Not Me”/”Lydia’s Moth” (Fourth Dimension CDEP)
* Christian Marclay/Thurston Moore/Lee Ranaldo: Fuck Shit Up: Victoriaville Mai 1999 (Victo CD)
* Yo La Tengo: Summer Sun (Matador CD)
* Yo La Tengo: And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out… (Matador CD)
* Yo la Tengo: Popular Songs (Matador CD)†
* Yo La Tengo: “Today Is The Day” (Matador CDEP)
* Yo La Tengo: “Danelectro” (Matador CDEP)
* Tool: Undertow (Volcano CD)†/‡
* Tool: Ænima (Volcano CD)†/‡
* Radiohead: Kid A (Capitol CD)†
* Radiohead: Amnesiac (Capitol CD)†
* Radiohead: Hail To The Thief (Capitol CD)†
* Robert Pollard: Lord Of The Birdcage (GBV, Inc. LP)
* Mars Classroom: The New Theory Of Everything (Happy Jack Rock Records MP3)†/‡
* Broken Bells: Broken Bells (Columbia CD/LP)
* Broken Bells: Meyrin Fields EP (Columbia EP)
* Fleet Foxes: Sun Giant (Sub Pop CDEP)†
* Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes/Sun Giant EP (Sub Pop LP/EP)
* Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop 2LP)



I didn’t really get Fleet Foxes when they burst on the scene back in 2008. The hype was inescapable, which sort of put me off from the get go. But I was intrigued by the album’s cover, a detail from Bruegel’s bizarre masterpiece, Netherlandish Proverbs (1559)—a bold move, flirting with pretention and cliché. On a whim, I bought a copy. But the music didn’t really grab me. Sure, the elaborate multi-part harmonies and gently strumming acoustic guitars evoke such folkie icons as Simon & Garfunkel, The Byrds, and Crosby, Stills & Nash and the nouveau-hippie, faux-rural vibe was pleasant enough—but the songs just didn’t stick with me. Restless and diffuse, a song might begin one way only to wander off into baroque instrumental passages and a big, catchy chorus might occasionally erupt, only to disappear, replaced with an incongruous coda. The singing was nice enough, but the whole thing sounded like a folk-rock pastiche, a twenty-something’s dream of the ‘60s, drenched in reverb and patchouli oil. Frankly, I wondered what the big deal was.

But I persevered. I picked up their previous EP, Sun Giant, because, well, again, I liked the cover (yes, I do things like that). And I liked this one a bit better. “Drops in the River” pits a catchy tune against atmospheric sitar and fingerpicked guitars while “English House” yields another one of those surprisingly gorgeous choruses. But “Mykonos” stood out immediately: a relatively straightforward song with strong melodies, propulsive rhythms, and carefully layered instrumental textures. Yet it's a quintessential Fleet Foxes construction, eschewing a regular AABA form and taking a left turn about half-way through—yet, somehow, it works, building up momentum and releasing tension via an oblique shift in meter, dynamics and theme. Nevertheless, despite my fondness for that one song, I didn’t really think much of the Fleet Foxes. Occasionally, I would pull these records out and give them another try but my ambivalence persisted.

So, I had sort of forgotten about them by the time their new album, Helplessness Blues, appeared in the record store a couple of weeks ago. The reviews were, once again, rapturous and since the cover art is, once again, stunningly beautiful, I decided to give them another shot (I am a sucker for snazzy packaging—what can I say?). And at first, it seemed like more of the same but the sprawling double-LP reveals more cohesive, introspective songwriting and increasingly ambitious musical settings. The lush vocal harmonizing and cavernous reverb remain intact, but the songs are less self-consciously derivative, less meanderingly episodic—and the band stretches its wings, orchestrating delicate, ethereal arrangements utilizing a variety of instruments, from fiddles, dulcimer, harp, and pedal steel to woodwinds, harpsichord, and harmonium to analog synthesizers to Tibetan singing bowls. The Foxes’ signature sound—a windswept Americana—is retained and refined but also expanded and developed, culminating in an outrageously skronky bass-clarinet freakout (with swooning violins) on the penultimate epic, “The Shrine/An Argument.” Very impressive. Two years in the making, Fleet Foxes obviously put a lot of effort into crafting Helpless Blues and have managed to fulfill the promise of their previous records. Now I “get” it—and those earlier efforts are starting to make more sense.

It took a while to get over my skepticism about this band. I have become so jaded, I was unable to believe the Fleet Foxes’ earnest demeanor was truly sincere. Where was the winking irony? Where was the post-punk malaise? Where was the rawk? How could music so pretty and precious exist in this day and age—much less be so popular? In the liner notes to the Sun Giant EP, lead Fox, Robin Pecknold (hiding behind a pseudonym), writes:

A very smart and gifted friend of mine told me once that music is a kind of replacement for the natural world. That, before civilization or whatever, the world must have seemed a place of such immense wonder and confusion, so terrifying in a way, unthinkably massive and majestic and that that feeling of mystery and amazement is somehow hardwired into us. Once the world became commonplace, mapped and conquered, that mystery left our common mind and we needed something to replace it with and then along came music. I think she’s right. Music is magic to me, transportative and full of wonder in a way that I have trouble getting from the natural world. All the human things that make the natural world so hard to connect with just aren’t there with music….Music to me is just as awe-bringing as the world maybe once [was]. And I just love it a lot.

I think I have to take him at his word and accept the fact that the Fleet Foxes are not “cool” and they are not “hip.” They are simply musicians trying to bring awe to a commonplace world. Helplessness Blues succeeds—so long as I can abandon my world-weary cynicism. That’s probably a good thing.

1 comment:

Sam said...

I should go back and listen to the first one again. Like you, my initial reaction was lukewarm.

Here's my lists for last week:

Playlist 2011-06-13:

*Luciano Berio: A Portrait, Part II (CDR) disc 2
*Basil Kirchin: Quantum
*Bruford: One of a Kind
*Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet: 2010-09-10 Firehouse 12, New Haven CT (CDR) selections
*Andrea Centazzo: Moon in Winter
*Company: 1979-03-03 London (CDR)
*Company: 1979-03-04 London (CDR)
*Miles Davis Quintet: 1964-07-15 Kyoto (CDR)
*New Loft: 2011-05-04: "A Corner of the Past" (wav)
*Subtle Body Transmission Orchestra: "Eight Frames for N Soloists and Spectral Continuo" 2011-06-04 Off the Grid 3, Silver Spring MD (wav)
*Sun Ra: College Tour Vol. 1: The Complete Nothing Is...
*Sun Ra and His Mythic Science Arkestra: The Paris Tapes
*Sun Ra: Sub Underground
*Sun Ra: Song of the Stargazers
*Weather Report: I Sing the Body Electric
*Weather Report: Live in Tokyo
*Weather Report: Mysterious Traveler
*Cornelius: The First Question Award
*Cornelius: 69/96
*Cornelius: Fantasma
*Cornelius: Fantasma ReMixes
*Dark Carpet: CDR compilation 2 (2010)
*Deerhoof: web site mp3 compilation (CDR)
*Deerhoof: Bibidi Babidi Boo (web release)
*Marvin Gaye: Here, My Dear
*Jimi Hendrix: 51st Anniversary (The Story of Life...) (boot CDR) discs 6
*Erik Lindgren: Oil On Linen
*OOIOO: Armonico Hewa
*Prince: Chaos and Disorder
*Martha Reeves & the Vandellas: Live Wire (selections)
*Ruby Suns: The Ruby Suns

Reading List 2011-06-13:

*Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights (transl. Malcolm C. Lyons) Vol. 1 (in progress)
*Campbell, Eddie. Alec: The Years Have Pants (A Life-Size Omnibus) (in progress)
*Ebert, Roger. The Great Movies II (in progress)
*Gifford, Don, and Robert J. Seldman. Ulysses Annotated, rev. and expanded ed. (in progress)
*Joyce, James. Ulysses (reread/in progress)
*Martin, George R.R. Game of Thrones (reread/in progress)
*Meyerowitz, Rick. Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead (in progress)
*Segar, E.C. The Complete E.C. Segar Popeye Vol. 8 (Dailies 1932-1933) (in progress)
*Sim, Dave. Cerebus, Vol. 1 (in progress)