(Sub Pop; 2008)
By David Greenwald | 13 June 2008
Turns out Jim James’ searing tenor isn’t one of a kind after all: on Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut, lead singer Robin Pecknold matches the My Morning Jacket singer note for knife-through-butter note. Much of the album plays like some great lost early ’00s MMJ release, picking up where At Dawn (2001) left off and pouring floods of harmony into the barn silo reverb instead of introducing clattering electric guitars. But Fleet Foxes, like the Sun Giant EP before it, is ultimately the product of a much deeper tradition.
From the first notes of “Sun It Rises,” it’s clear that the Foxes are infatuated, rightfully, with their own voices—and the echoes of Laurel Canyon and Inglewood. Like the Beach Boys singing the Crosby, Stills & Nash songbook, tracks such as “White Winter Hymnal” and the delicate “Oliver James” are rooted deep in the Golden State, though the abounding twang betrays a Southern influence. Of course, none of this jives with the band’s Seattle home, but the music’s too rich and real to let questions of locational authencity get in the way.
“Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” matches the tenderness and airy mysticism of CS&N’s “Lady of the Island” and exemplifies the Blake-like Romantic bent that permeates the band’s lyrics: Pecknold sings to a shadow and questions his own mortality in the face of tall grasses and cold mountain air. Awe at nature’s daunting monoliths goes hand in hand with more sympathetic feelings for family: “Blue Ridge Mountains,” the album’s finest song, calls out to a brother who has “missed your connecting flight.” “You’re ever welcome with me any time you like,” he comforts, with worry lying just beneath. It’s this bittersweet undercurrent that drives the Foxes, a tinge of misery underscoring the unfettered joy of their soaring melodies.
And what melodies they are. In “Blue Ridge Mountains,” Pecknold puts on a stunning display of writing and performance, moving the notes up and down and up again, cresting ever higher until the relieving drop of the bridge’s final line. Despite the emphasis on washes of voices throughout the album, there’s nothing otherworldly about it, none of Grizzly Bear’s forest haunting (though the EP’s “English House” wouldn’t feel out of place on Yellow House ) or fellow Sub Popper Iron & Wine’s percussive freakouts; just an abiding solemnity that pays homage and paves the way forward. Fleet Foxes ease down the road with no gimmicks or quirks, making their enthusiasm all the more contagious, if a bit too acrobatic and skillful for the listener to join in with. Not every great song has to be a sing-along, though. Surely five men singing their hearts out is music enough.