Album review: Fleet Foxes’ ‘Helplessness Blues’

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Hello harmonies, our old friend. Hello, finger-picked guitar, we’ve come for you again. On its second album of dew-dappled cabin folk, Seattle’s Fleet Foxes tips its wool cap to Simon & Garfunkel, CSNY and other progenitors of the soaring intertwined vocals, but it knows enough to leave its heroes behind.

On “Bedouin Dress,” the second track on “Helplessness Blues,” frontman Robin Pecknold sings: “If to borrow is to take and not return, I have borrowed all my lonesome life … the borrower’s debt is the only regret of my youth.” On Fleet Foxes’ 2008 debut, naysayers wondered if the band wasn’t so indebted to ‘60s folk that Pecknold would end up in some sort of debtors’ prison, albeit one with Navajo blankets and Yerba Mate tea.


But alas, “Bedouin Dress” shows that the band has such a hunger for nuanced song construction, with each moment interlocking with the next in an inspired fretwork, that it transcends its influences. “The Shrine/Argument” starts predictably enough but it climbs through a few phases: forceful, cymbal crashes; hallucinatory near-a cappella, and a skronk blowout that would make John Zorn proud.

With more emphasis on groove and bass weight, the songs don’t seem as fragile as before but rather like they can weather some storms. The echoey waltz rhythm of “Lorelai” provides the backbone for an expansive memory of lost love, one that swings less with regret and more with gratitude.

In its best moments, “Helplessness Blues” sparkles like some sort of divine plan, but a plan that knows the value of mistakes, surprises and even regret. Stolen, lost or repaid, all of Fleet Foxes’ debts are forgiven.


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Fleet Foxes
“Helplessness Blues”
Sub Pop
Three and a half stars