Helplessness Blues

Being that I was too young at the time, I cannot say that, if I had been of age in the 1960s, I would have been listening to the heady sounds of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull, Joni Mitchell, The Beach Boys (Pet Sounds era) and Van Morrison. However, as I sit listening and enjoying the music of Fleet Foxes, it occurs to me that I probably would have. After all, Fleet Foxes is the natural legacy of these and other bands. From the Laurel Canyon to the British Isles, and back to the beaches of Malibu, with a slight detour to Greenwich Village, this group of Seattle natives exudes the influences of great artists from the golden age of rock.

Fleet Foxes 2008 debut was a gorgeously lush Baroque-folk-pop album. The follow-up, although not overtly different in sound, is more ambitious and Robin Pecknold’s lead vocals are more prevalent in the mix. Helplessness Blues features a host of new instrumentation including 12-string guitar, hammered dulcimer, zither, upright bass, wood flute, tympani, Moog synthesizer, tamboura, fiddle, marxophone, clarinet, music box, pedal steel guitar, lap steel guitar, Tibetan singing bowls, and vibraphone. That should give you a hint as to the layered and complex nature of this recording. Competing instruments create drama, only to bow out to allow more delicate instrumentation to emerge. The band has added additional players and their unique approach to rhythm creates new tension in the music.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the bands first and second release can be found in the songwriting. Robin Pecknold struggled to write following the success and constant touring for Fleet Foxes eponymous debut. During tours songs were written, re-written, and scrapped. The same went for recordings. Unlikely inspiration came when Pecknold was asked to open for Joanna Newsom. Playing as a solo artist allowed him to focus on melody and lyrics; that experience translated to fresh approaches to recording the songs. Pecknold is a troubadour in search of identity. He writes “one of the prevailing themes of the album is the struggle between who you are and who you want to be or who you want to end up, and how sometimes you are the only thing getting in the way of that. That idea shows up in a number of the songs.” He writes whimsically about growing older – he’s only in his mid twenties –so these songs are mostly revelatory in nature. In the opening track he acknowledges that he’s past the age of his parents when they became parents. It’s a sweet sentiment but also a startling realization for someone who has only experienced youth. Pecknold also expresses the need to move beyond himself in the title track, singing “I’d rather be a functioning cog in some great machine/serving something beyond me.

Forgiveness Blues offers many moments of reflection, both lyrically and musically and many opportunities to compare this band to those of the 60’s and 70’s. I mostly hear those British Isles sounds and I smile about the young man who is responsible for it. I can’t help thinking, with a name like Robin Pecknold, he sounds like a merry man of Sherwood Forest and his music sounds like it could have accompanied that band of arch men on their adventures.

Rosemary Welsch (Afternoon Mix Host)