“The sun rising, dangling there/Golden and fair, in the sky.” Those are the final vivid utterances in wondrous harmony of the first track on Seattle quintet Fleet Foxes self-titled debut. The group who is made up of Robin Pecknold(Lead vocals, guitar), Skyler Skjelset(Guitar, mandolin), Casey Wescott(Keyboards, vocals), Christian Wargo(Bass, vocals), and Morgan Henderson(Guitar, strings, percussion, woodwinds) formed around Pecknold and Skjelset after the two founded Fleet Foxes shortly following their completion of high school. The band drew the attention of Phil Ek(Modest Mouse, The Shins), a well-known Seattle-based producer, and the Fleet Foxes legacy began.
In 2006, the group recorded a demo with Ek which helped them to receive word of mouth and online exposure via the online social networking website Myspace. After signing with Sub Pop in January of 2008, the band quickly produced their self titled debut. A large part of Fleet Foxes folk-rock sound is attributed to influences like Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Hank Williams, whom Pecknold and Skjelset grew up listening to, among a range of other artists of the 60’s. But instead of conceiving a would-be 1960’s record in 2008, the group crafted something that is altogether beautiful and unique.
Right away, you are aware that Fleet Foxes are experts at crafting folk songs. Each track is a delicate, varying array of sounds stemming from classically-inspired folk, ballad-style folk, and classic rock among many others. Three and four part harmonies ring true on just about every track, and the album as a whole gives the listener a feeling of walking through a deep mountainside forest, or hearing birds in the cold morning air. The group’s lyrical use of nature is indeed prevalent, and works to reinforce the theme and maintain the alluring, narrative realm in which the listener is captured. “Sun It Rises” and “White Winter Hymnal” are the spatial, choir friendly tracks that initiate the album, and act as the foundation upon which Fleet Foxes begin to weave their magical baroque-inspired tale.
“Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” is a stunning solo showcase of Pecknold’s magnificent and extraordinarily powerful voice. He drives the band vocally on every track, while the remaining members provide outstanding support by way of vivid, stirring harmonies. The exquisitely arranged mid-album track “He Doesn’t Know Why”, is a tribute to familial confusion, “In the gentle light as the morning nears/You don’t say a single word of the last two years/Where you were or when you reached the frontier/I didn’t understand…” Casey Wescott creates a dynamic, wistful outro/transition on piano which glides effortlessly into “Heard Them Stirring”, where we are immediately met with a wall of melancholy-tinged harmony, layered with flowing acoustic guitar and an unelaborate yet effective floor tom down beat. There are no lyrics on the track, however the listener still gets the feeling that they are hearkening to some grand tale of old.
Henderson’s deft, eerie flute greets us on the flagship track, “Your Protector”, and is promptly joined for a graceful dance with Pecknold’s commanding and elegant vocals before the band comes in emphatically to join. An array of strings and nimble piano afford “Blue Ridge Mountains” an upbeat feel, and once again prove Fleet Foxes as masters of composition and rare, illuminating story-telling ability, “…In the quivering forest, where the shivering dog rests/Our good grandfather built a wooden nest/And the river got frozen/And the home got snowed in/And a yellow moon glowed bright/’Till the morning light…”
On the final track of the record, “Oliver James”, Pecknold again illustrates his stunning vocal range and practiced vocal vigor as he tells us a gentle acoustic tale of lost grandparents. Pecknold ends the song with an impressive wail, “Oliver James, washed in the rain/No longer.” Despite the sorrow that inspired the track, “Oliver James” doesn’t leave you feeling over-somber. Like the record as a whole, it leaves you with a feeling of warmth and proximity, and a sense of magic through the transference of experiences. Fleet Foxes takes us not on a meandering trek through endless forest landscapes, but rather an epic and resplendent journey through memory, sorrow and and the beauty of finely formed tales.
Reviewed by James McGill