It's all well and good to listen to experimental and challenging music, music with grime, sweat, and blood caked unto every note...but sometimes you need a reminder of what else is out there. Music that is impossibly catchy, un-apologetically classicist in its songwriting while still being successful, or music that strives to uplift because it's just so damn beautiful. This kind of music is often unassuming in its greatness, in my opinion, because its immediacy has me wondering "is that it??" before realizing I don't need to apply the same scrutiny and work into appreciating it as I would the aforementioned "experimental, challenging" music.
The debut, self-titled album from Fleet Foxes resists this kind of criticism and desire to dig deeper. It makes you embarrassed of your critical faculties because it has a natural, organic, and pure beauty, as if complaining about it would be like complaining about a waterfall or a rose bush growing next to a farmhouse. That doesn't mean there isn't anything to say about it, so don't go away just yet.
While listening to Fleet Foxes I'm instantly reminded of what I think is half the reason most people hate indie/underground bands: the vocals. While I subscribe to the immortal words of David Berman of the Silver Jews--"All my favorite singers couldn't sing"--I can't pretend that some, or even most, people feel this way. Having a unique voice gives a band character and makes it more memorable, but this isn't what most listeners want. They want something appropriate to the music and a bit more...obvious, whether it be angry grunting set to metal or the flat speak-singing most rappers employ. While the singer of the Fleet Foxes may not have much personality, this is one of the prettiest albums in recent memory due solely to the vocal performances. Recalling Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and sometimes Young), the gold standard of harmonized vocals in rock music, Fleet Foxes also draw comparisons to contemporaries like My Morning Jacket and Band Of Horses. In case you don't follow, this means that the album is stuffed to bursting with soaring melodies and heartbreakingly pretty harmonies. Even if the singer is kind of faceless, he has to be for this kind of approach to work.
Though the music of Fleet Foxes is steeped in Americana, rustic folk, and classic rock, the whole thing reminds me a lot of the Flaming Lips's The Soft Bulletin in the way it uses staggeringly pretty orchestrated music to talk about dark lyrical themes. You don't really notice it at first, but on this album death is a recurring theme, along with general Appalachian malaise and introspection. 'He Doesn't Know Why', despite its prettiness, is the lament of a sibling for a brother who has been gone for two years, and who has been humbled by the world:
Penniless and tired with your hair grown long
I was looking at you there and your face looked wrong
memory is a fickle siren's song
I didn't understand
But, lyrics aside, the album is as pretty as I keep saying, the sort of music you idealize in your head when you use words like "lush", "ornate", and "gorgeous" to describe other bands or albums. Even the mostly instrumental 'Heard Them Stirring', which effectively uses wordless vocals in a way similar-to-but-entirely-different-from Animal Collective, is beautiful. Speaking of Animal Collective, some have noted their influence on this band though I suspect all they mean is a similar focus on using vocals in unique ways, as evidenced by the Collective-esque "row row row your boat" style of the singing on 'White Winter Hymnal', which is probably the most lush, ornate, and gorgeous song ever written about watching someone collapse from unnamed wounds and turn the snow "red as strawberries in the summertime." It's also worth praising the album for playing it loose with song structure, particularly the opener 'Sun It Rises', which begins with an a-capella section before the song proper begins, eventually closing things with a tacked on guitar outro that sounds like it might be beginning a different song before dropping out.
Fleet Foxes have here crafted one of the best debut albums in recent memory, containing some obvious influences but doing new and interesting things with them. Though normally I loathe bands repeating themselves, I wouldn't mind if Fleet Foxes released another album or two that was largely similar to this. After all, Fleet Foxes is like a countryside vacation simply too satisfying and too relaxing to never want to repeat.