Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

Fleet Foxes are speaking for the masses, whether the Seattle band knows it or not. Pastoral folk-pop has far surpassed the indie realm to become to voice of the flannelled youth gone “green.” The eco-conscious kids who find no irony in swiping clean the sale racks at Urban Outfitters are gobbling up this radio-ready granola, and in the case of Fleet Foxes, they’re spot on.

Since their 2008 EP, Sun Giant, they’ve been growing into their critically acclaimed britches. Three years after their self-titled full-length debut, they’ve incorporated heavier lyrics and far more complex instrumentation. (Literally, frontman Robin Pecknold penned the info for Helplessness Blues and notes it’s drizzled with a bevy of new instruments. Among them: wood flute, zither, tympani, upright bass, tambura, clarinet and even Tibetan singing bowls.) On “Bedouin Dress,” there’s a solo violin accenting featherweight acoustic guitar that positions the snappy number on the fringes of both folk and orchestral pop, and “The Cascades” is a dainty, instrumental showcase of a slew of new sounds. The band’s trademark crescendo from quiet vocals and soft strums to rich, glory-almighty gospel choruses is still the prevalent motif, but on Helplessness Blues, there’s an obvious spotlight on lyrical content. Pecknold and company have become more pensive, less concerned with hooks and sing-a-longs and more into self-awareness. The words on this outing are undeniably closer to social commentary than the woodsy metaphors of Fleet Foxes.

On the title track, nestled in the middle of LP, Pecknold makes apt points for any youth: he was raised to think he was special, but after some introspection, he’d “rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond” himself. It’s a near-classic sentiment, but it’s timelier now than ever, as the country’s economic pendulum constantly slams hopes and the 24-hour news cycle makes Armageddon seem imminent. Pecknold doesn’t deserve kickbacks from the Peace Corps, but on Helplessness Blues, he offers a heaping helping of earnestness that really resonates.

Sometimes Pecknold stretches for Donovan-style simplicity and misses, like on “Blue Spotted Tail.” The minimalism – it’s just Pecknold and an acoustic guitar – works sonically, but lyrically, it’s a little cheesy. Pecknold pleads, “Why is life made only for to end?” and then drops an inadvertent MGMT reference: “Why this frightened part of me that’s fated to pretend?”

Mostly gorgeous mid-tempo tunes though, like “Lorelei,” “Montezuma” and even “Sim Sala Bam,” make up the bulk of the album. They direct Pecknold’s dreamy vocals to center stage and save Helplessness Blues from falling too deep into hippie self-questioning. Truthfully, it’s hard to harp on any of Pecknold’s musings when his voice is so damned pretty.

It’s trite to say, but this album will probably make a few young folks feel less alone. Kids will border their notebooks with the lyrics, beg their parents to drop them off at the band’s next show and, for the boys at least, they’ll treasure that first chin hair in hopes one day sporting a gnarly, folksy-dude beard. And for the cynical crowd that’s accepted that life never gets easier, the enchanting soundscape of Helplessness Blues serves as a respite from the discouraging droll of the day-to-day – so long as they don’t mull over the lyrics.

Fleet Foxes
Helplessness Blues
[Sub Pop]