Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Released May 3rd, 2011 on Sub Pop Records
Produced by Fleet Foxes and Phil Ek
Peaked at #4 U.S., #2 U.K.
Debut albums, when they’re done right, are the stuff of legend. When a band makes a big splash with their first record, it sets them up for an entire career; at the same time, it makes it difficult to ever live up to the magic of that first album. Sometimes it works out; Led Zeppelin was a stellar debut but their sound wasn’t perfected until their fourth, and Ten offered a gateway into a band that dominated the first half of the 1990s. Other bands never live up to the hype created by their first album. Say what you will about the Use Your Illusion records, Guns ‘n’ Roses never came close to topping Appetite For Destruction. The Stone Roses didn’t even try. The dreaded sophomore slump is a real thing.
Fleet Foxes, released in 2008, was one of those magical debut records. Put together by a bunch of Sixties-loving modern folk troubadours led by 22 year old songwriting ace Robin Pecknold, the album hit the Top 40 in the U.S. and went to #3 in the U.K. It was all over every critics lists of 2008, the 2000s, and by now all time. Following that up was a daunting task, and if it took a little longer than it might have otherwise it can be forgiven.
Helplessness Blues, released in the spring of 2011, proved that the butter-smooth vocal harmonies weren’t the only thing about the band. Fleet Foxes was ornate but simple; the harmonies found good purchase in easy-natured arrangements, a structure that threw the sometimes disturbing lyrics Pecknold penned into sharp relief. Helplessness Blues, on the other hand, revealed a band that reveled in Seventies prog heroics just as much as they did Sixties three-part harmonies. Between their debut and the follow-up, the band had attracted some more members. Former Pedro The Lion member Christian Wargo joined on bass guitar, and former Blood Brother Morgan Henderson brought in upright bass and woodwinds; that’s his oddly alluring squall providing the memorable coda to “The Shrines / An Argument.” More famously, they were joined on this album and its subsequent tour by drummer Josh Tillman, who would go on to make his own name as Father John Misty. The expansion of the band and the increased complexity of the band’s sound are probably not a coincidence.
The album proved that the band weren’t some twee flash in the pan; they had an aesthetic all their own, one that could unfold like layers of expertly crafted origami. Christgau found the band’s 2008 debut to be dull enough to award a bomb rating but managed to scrape his curmudgeonly ass out of its seat for long enough to say something half-nice about Helplessness Blues, which says something in it’s own right. Pecknold broke the momentum, of course, by going to Columbia for an undergraduate degree. After moping around the campus for a while he decided to the get the old band back together, but although I’ve said good things about both Crack-Up and Shore neither have achieved the sort of fey prog magic that was presented on Helplessness Blues.