I might be violating the highest rule of this band’s likely-hipster following – that is, never encourage anyone to like the same things as you, in the interest of the preservation of the “individual” – but I love these guys too much. So let them come at me with Pitchforks. I regret that I have but one life to give to the Foxes.
1. The harmonies and melodies are to this band what lead guitar is to every other band.
You’ve no doubt had your face melted off by the vocal/guitar back-and-forth in Led Zeppelin’s ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’. That’s what listening to the Fleet Foxes feels like. Their voices are so finely tuned, melded, and contrasted that they can’t be classified as merely vocals, much in the same way bass and lead are two different animals.
2. The baroque elements
Upon first listen, something will feel distinctly anachronistic about Sun Giant or Fleet Foxes. They don’t quite have a string concierto or anything like that, but it’s still transportive to another time, a time where each note was its own. It’s a red, flashing warning sign when any writer compares a band to The Beatles, but I’m going to have to turn that one on right now. The Beatles made the overworked genre of classical music into Rock and Roll; Fleet Foxes made it into alternative music.
3. The lyrics will make you feel warm
iTunes says I’ve listened to Helplessness Blues 848 times now. I still can’t place who ‘the armies of night that will do such injustice to you’ are, nor do I know why, since the singer professes he wants to be ‘a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond [him]’, the song ends with ‘someday I’ll be like the man on the screen’. But the lyrics are not nonsensical; rather, they are meant to have a meaning for the band and a separate meaning for you. And there’s a warmth that comes with that.
4. Take a nap with Fleet Foxes and a good pair of headphones.
I dare you. I don’t know what you’ll experience, but when I take a Fox nap, I’m walking through a grey day in Ireland with a mist in the air and water splashing off the escarpments. I have a North Face fleece on and my face is bearing the brunt of a mild and slightly cold wind. This band makes you feel unsure of what’s on the road ahead of you, in the best way imaginable, but you’re confident it will be mystical. No, I don’t take drugs.
5. The transitions
I point you to Ragged Wood for this particular bullet. The song sings about someone hearkening for his/her loved one to come out of the wilderness and for the two to enjoy the spring together once more. The pleading and softness of the lover’s request comes through in the changing rhythm of the guitar. It is urgent in one stanza, submissive in the next (‘Tell me anything you want/Any old lie will do/ Call me back to you’). Rather than moving the song along because it ought to, the transitions feel necessary, like the band listened to what the song wanted of itself.
6. The introductions
This one’s more of a gained appreciation once you start listening to the band. There is a strange sound that sounds a bit like an open E string being gently touched by a thumb in ‘Drops in the River’, not unlike the one heard in ‘I Feel Fine’. There’s an opening note from some woodwind instrument in ‘Your Protector’ to set the tone. Very minor moments that sort of make the whole song from there on out.
7. Filling a room with nothing
I’m sure there are other examples out there, but I once saw Satriani play in concert and not a single other member of the band played a note for one song. It still felt like the entire room collapsed, swallowed up by a single man. I get the same feeling with ‘Innocent Son’, but instead of a guitar turned to 11, it’s just Robin Pecknold’s voice. It’s a weird feeling, especially since the lyrics are so damn lonely: ‘You left me there, waiting at the bottom of the stairs with my eyes closed… keep all my promises to break them”. I swear if you have a great pair of earbuds, you can hear the other band members shifting uneasily in the recording studio.
8. The song titles tell you everything you need to know
In a way that is completely organic, the albums feature obscure song titles that build toward an unidentifiable theme. It’s as though they’re all the soundtrack to a Hans Christian Andersen storybook, but without the book to go by. What do I mean? Fleet Foxes track listing: ‘Sun It Rises’, ‘Ragged Wood’, ‘White Winter Hymnal’, ‘Tiger Mountain Peasant Song’, ‘Quiet Houses’, ‘He Doesn’t Know Why’, ‘Heard Them Stirring’, ‘Your Protector’, ‘Meadowlarks’, ‘Blue Ridge Mountains’, ‘Oliver James’. If I gave you just those words and nothing else, it’s fairly likely that your story would be similar to mine. It would be a story with magical realism, a pastoral setting, and, yeah, probably anthropomorphism. Again, I’m not on drugs.
9. So do the album covers
There are some album covers properly categorized as cool, and then there are the ones that are not just iconic, but speak to the achievement of the album itself. To keep Led Zeppelin as a continuing thread, their album art for Led Zeppelin IV was perfec t because it represented the frustration of being dragged through the mud by music critics who weren’t even listening to the music. Cue IV without a band name, album name, or any discernable markings. Just a peeling wall and a bizarre photograph. Wouldn’t you know it, the critics, with no prejudicial crutch, found the album to be a success.
Fleet Foxes’ music is the hymn of a different time and of a strange land. The white palaces and Renaissance-era crowds captured on Sun Giant reflect that. Hell, Fleet Foxes looks like it might have been commissioned by the Medici family. As one who is both oblivious and perceptive to being pretentious – with himself and others, respectively – it would be crystal clear if this were a band trying to be random for random’s sake. I think of Fleet Foxes in the same way I think of Kurt Vonnegut: if anyone else had tried, it would have looked sad.
10. They made Gregorian Chanting cool
I was struggling for the longest time to figure out what makes Fleet Foxes so different from other bands. There are guitars, vocals, and drums. The songs have choruses, refrains, and a coherent beginning and end. They are a modern band by all means. Of course the answer could only be found while I was exploring Nan Jing, China with two complete strangers for the day while we waited for the music festival to start back up again. I think that’s what the Foxes would have wanted.
Anyway, I told Mo that I liked them and he said, without any context, “Hmm. Never figured you’d be the guy to like Gregorian chanting.” I protested, but after singing a few bars of Winter White Hymnal, it’s fairly clear that at the base of their music is chanting. This is an unusual band, and in the Recycled Media Era, they deserve a listen for that reason alone.