Fleet Foxes hit D.C. this week, and seeing them at DAR Constitution Hall in downtown D.C. made me feel like I was sitting in an extremely large coffee shop in Seattle, with lots of girls in horn-rimmed glasses, and guys all wearing variations of the same plaid flannel. Fleet Foxes, or “Fresh Foxes,” as a local DC news station referred to them during a weekend events update, have a unique sound, which has garnered them critical praise and strong album sales since they broke into the indie music scene four years ago. Though there are some obvious influences, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Elliott Smith, any folk music from the 60s, early country, and even the Beach Boys, they are still a difficult band to peg or pigeonhole. There is an obvious folk/country quality to their music, and when I hear them, I think of mournful church choirs – though it’s more a hippie-beardo choir, singing with a reverence for nature and the world around them. I’d go to that church.
On tour right now for the release of their second album, Helplessness Blues, just released this May, Fleet Foxes developed a huge following in 2008, without any hit singles, based on the strength of their brilliant second EP, Sun Giant, and their first album, Fleet Foxes. Opening up for Fleet Foxes currently is another Seattle band, The Cave Singers, reformed with former members of Pretty Girls Make Graves. For a three-piece, The Cave Singers put out a pretty good rusty-vocals, blues-fueled foot-stompin’ opening performance.
Unfortunately, this show was at DAR Constitution Hall in downtown DC, as I have to say DAR really does not seem to be made for concerts. If you sit on either side, especially up high, the sight lines can be bad, and the acoustics seem poor from almost any seat. Despite this, a quieter show like Fleet Foxes came off really well, unlike, say, a roaring My Morning Jacket show I saw there two years ago, where the music turned into mush, especially the higher up you sat.
Playing nine of the 12 songs on Helplessness Blues, two songs from the Sun Giant EP (including the powerfully beautiful “Mykonos”), and seven songs from their first album, Fleet Foxes sliced and diced a great set of tracks from all of their popular releases up to this point. Their harmonies immediately beckon one to sing along, and through many tracks, the crowd did just that, though more at a low murmur, rather than a full-out sing along. The last song of the encore, “Helplessness Blues,” the title track, especially roused the crowd from their mellow attentiveness to stand up and sing along.
Fleet Foxes’ music has a sort of timeless quality, with their soaring, perfect harmonies, full and rich acoustic textures, and plaintive lyrics, recalling ‘60s folkster poets, rhapsodizing over the loss of innocence. And innocent, at least at this point, is how the extremely young six band members of Fleet Foxes come off. Robin Pecknold, the band leader and songwriter, is only 24 years old, having put together Fleet Foxes in the Seattle area in 2006.
For the current album, recorded on the Sub Pop label, Pecknold says, “we all went up to Woodstock, New York, to record at Dreamland Recording, where our friends in Beach House had had a good experience recording their last album Teen Dream.” There is a dreamy quality to Fleet Foxes studio music, which still comes through when you see them live, and the list of different acoustic instruments they play is impressive. Their harmonies are precise, and they all seem to have wonderful voices. This, combined with their tight acoustic sound, made for a mesmerizing live performance. There is an intelligent and quiet beauty to all of their music, which seems to foretell the potential for a band that is here to stay, and be brilliantly creative for a long time. The concert ended as it had begun, with the crowd rising to their feet to applaud this band that obviously pours their hearts (and minds) into all of their music.
Check out the setlist here.
Musichord Rating: 9/10
[Sub Pop] 2011
Low make hypnotic, guitar driven melodic music that creeps around the side of your consciousness and relaxes and subtly inspires. The tempos are slow, the melodies are clear and narrowly defined. C’mon has a strange kind of minimalist catchiness to it – these aren’t the kind of ear-worm candy pop songs that will take residence in the back of your head, but as you acclimatize to the record, you connect to it, and with multiple listens, I’ve assumed a comfortable familiarity with the album. It’s one of those 3AM kind of recordsthat fits perfectly into the slowed down metabolism, one that somehow appropriates the glacial motion of the universe, of the stars turning in the sky. It reminds me of more synth driven counterparts, like Beach House, or the organic slow burn of The Dirty Three.
C’mon also reminds me that the world is going forward, that time is elusive, and unstoppable. It’s a perfect album to listen to in quieter moments, to help you concentrate, to gauge your progress. The vocal harmonies of Alan Sparhawk(guitar) and Mimi Parker(drums) are the centrepiece of the record, carefully crafted and, like most of the record, impressive in their minimalism. The sound is big, spacious and has plenty of time between notes. Robert Plant included two Low songs on his 2010 Band of Joy album – as he said of their music, “There’s room for everything”. The band also features plenty of musical guests, in a range of Americana, folk tinged appearances, including banjo, lap steel, organ and violin.
Lyrically, the album is, like it’s instrumentation, a little churlish, obtuse and sparse. On Witches, Sparhawk asserts the virtues of “submitting to embarrassing capture”, telling tales of the witches that lived in his room as a kid. Nothing But Heart contains the simple meditation “I am nothing but heart” repeated over and over until the voice itself becomes instrumental. There’s plenty to think about, although I’m not sure that you’re likely to resolve precisely what the significance of the songs themselves mean. And in a way, I guess that’s part of who this band are – something of an elusive mystery. They tend to mock the trends. In a live setting, the band has a history of performing at low volumes, or playing with their backs to the audience- presumably in an effort to get people to listen – or perhaps to change the way that people listen. (Of course, it could just be a passive-agressive prima donna thing.)
Whatever the reason, this album is not something that should be ignored – it’s more direct, more cohesive, more refreshing, and deserves to be played a little bit louder.
Musichord Rating: 7.5/10
Beach House make the most curious music. When I heard that the Baltimore Duo’s Australian tour was taking in Sydney, Melbourne, and the tiny Hippie hamlet that is Mullumbimby, NSW – which by chance is where I happen to reside, I had to dig out my copy of 2010′s Teen Dream, and give it another listen.
In fact, I did more than just listen. I immersed myself in the record, listening to nothing else for three days, including 2 four-hour commutes. I fell asleep to the record, (not while driving, of course) waking up with a sore cheek where the ear-bud had left a hard impression. And all the while I was building up what I thought was an easy familiarity with some glossy, beautiful pop music. I quite liked the sound of Victoria’s perfect, glassy voice, and noted appreciatively the intricacy and subtle presence of Alex’s guitar lines. I didn’t really feel wholly enamoured with the album or anything. The dreamy, delicate colourful artistic sounds were compelling, but they didn’t really inspire me, or delight me. It was, y’know – nice. No big deal.
And so, as I turned out at the Mullumbimby Civic Hall to get my smiley stamp at the door, I wasn’t really hyper-excited to see the band. I felt like a bit of an impostor fan. A (gasp) hipster – and an old one, at that. But as the duo took to the stage, along with a touring drummer, and opened their set with Better Times (I want you/to know the truth…), something clicked. The crappy, tin cathedral roof of the Mullum Civic Hall, was reflecting sounds all over the hall, and the music positively encompassed the crowd as the hot summer breeze blew in from the wings.
It was there, with the sound surrounding us, echoing and shimmery, that I realized how deeply that Beach House can imprint on you. Throughout the rest of the set, transfixed and contained mainly by the sounds of Teen Dream, (with a few other surprises thrown in), I realised I was in this way over my head. This was not the fleeting musical romance I thought I had signed up for. On the contrary, the music and I now had a pretty intense thing going on.
And now, days have passed since Alex and Victoria played their encore, and left the stage to the rapturous applause of the locals, and the Mullum Civic Hall has gone back to it’s regular business of town meetings and high school formals. Still, the music and I are more intensely connected than ever. It haunts me, and delights me, and captures my idle moments with lilting careful synth-imagery.
If Beach House happens to come to your tiny little town, you should go – and if they don’t, you should still consider spending some serious time with their music.
Just don’t be prepared to have it let you go easily.