REVIEW: Fleet Foxes – “Helplessness Blues”

Fleet Foxes / Helplessness Blues / Sub Pop

The lengthy descriptor “cosmic tunes for mental therapy” is listed as the genre for Hopelessness Blues, Fleet Foxes’ second LP, on iTunes. If that all sounds a little metaphysical, just imagine a big jam session between Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and maybe Luke Lalonde from Born Ruffians for good measure. In other words, there’s a lot of spiritually aggrandizing vocal harmonies, sometimes bravely set atop nothing more than a couple of acoustic guitars. But the atmosphere around the vocals is constantly in flux, as on the surreal “The Plains/Bitter Dancer”, on which listeners are transported from a warm and intimate hearth to a throbbing conservatory of pianos, harmonicas, flutes and tambourines in a single song.

Don’t get the wrong idea about the title of the album; the stellar title track is ironically named. We’re not treated to a 12-bar blues track – in fact, it’s hard to imagine a better representation of adolescent hope for the future (“If I know only one thing, it’s that everything that I see of the world outside is so inconceivable, often I barely can speak… what good is it to sing helplessness blues?”). These lyrics are exemplary of the whole; singer Robin Pecknold refuses to let any of the beauty in the world escape his finely tuned observant eye.

The backing music on Helplessness Blues tenderly embraces his words in the most heartfelt way, for almost the entirety of the album. Things take a left turn late in “The Shrine/An Argument” that’s jarring enough to make you think someone’s suddenly dropped the needle on a Mars Volta track; two dueling woodwinds interject over the soothing tones in, possibly, a musical representation of the titular argument. It’s an odd choice that is unique to the album, but far from ruining the mood, the honking clarinets only serve to amplify the beauty of the tender “Blue Spotted Tail” which follows.

Download: “Sim Sala Bim”, “Helplessness Blues”, “Blue Spotted Tail”

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