Wednesday, June 11, 2008
FLEET FOXES: Fleet Foxes
An essay in the liner notes to the self-titled debut from Fleet Foxes recalls the disappointment felt upon discovering photographs that overlap vivid memories, and the uncertainty that those memories were born independent of the photos. Making folk music immediately invites accusations of simulacra, charges that the music in question is a photograph and not an authentic memory. This leads to a lot of desperate appropriation and pastiche. Certainly appropriation is a part of the folk tradition, but it’s easier to imitate that tradition than to stand inside of it. Because so many of the melodies and chords in American folk are similar or identical, (dig the Delta blues for an example) the battle to make moving folk music is won or lost in the performance. A great performer posses a certain quality that I’m hesitant to label “authenticity” (bad memories of East vs. West gangta rap), but which relies on emotiveness and charisma. The worst folk performers change their diction and accent to imitate Americana stereotypes. The best folk performers just ARE. Doesn’t even matter what they are, most of the time, so long as they ARE.
Take this band, for example. Rather than romanticize and imitate music and song rooted in America’s past, the Fleet Foxes inhabit it themselves. They do so quite vividly, in fact, and rising above the irony or pastiche that so often accompanies “folk music” they don’t lean on someone else’s imagery; not Faulkner’s, not Leadbelly’s and not Dylan’s. This music sounds like the humid South, but hedges westward thanks to the thick, Brian Wilson-style harmonies. No fake accents or Dustbowl posturing exists. Singer Robin Pecknold’s voice is as passive as it is beautiful. He tends to lets the songs themselves do the emoting, no need for hysterical hamming. The emotiveness and charisma is there, but it is so natural you may not notice it consciously.
Fleet Foxes manage to vary their song structures without jarring convolution and their arrangements are perfectly subtle; while acoustic guitars pervade, piano, organ, mandolin and hand percussion dutifully arrive when needed. Occasionally drums and electric guitars are present, but just as often the instruments drop out, as on the closing track “Oliver James”, which leaves Pecknold’s voice almost totally exposed. He’s got a great voice, a timeless voice, an effortless voice.
There are a lot of great moments here. There’s a fantastic campfire round in “White Winter Hymnal”. The instruments fold in at the start of “He Doesn’t Know Why”, gradually elevating from heavenly to EVEN MORE heavenly. The song’s opening melody is Beatles-quality. So are the harmonies. “Your Protector” opens with mellotron flutes and a composed mourn that morphs into a gallant march. And so on. This album is a great moment from start to finish. The surprising abundance of reverb, rather than mask thinness of voice, enhances the more chilling moments on this record, pushing it into nocturnal spaces. I can imagine this band performing in a tiny white church hidden in the woods. They’d be worth the hike.
I don’t know if I love this record just yet (I only heard it for the first time about a week ago,) but an infatuation exists.