Amidst all the presumptuous sniping at Coldplay on yesterday’s playlist blog, someone asked me whether the debut Fleet Foxes album had turned up yet. As it happened, I was just working on a review of that record for the issue of Uncut out at the end of May. It is, you’ll be relieved to hear, pretty fine.
Fleet Foxes, if you’ve missed earlier hyperbole surrounding them like this and all the post-SXSW frothing, are a bunch of youngish, hairy types from Seattle who’ve rapidly perfected a folkish, spiritual take on a kind of cosmic American music once typified by the work of My Morning Jacket.
Around the time of “At Dawn”’s UK release, I became rather obsessed with My Morning Jacket, so I’ve been avoiding writing about their forthcoming “Evil Urges” for the past month, since I’ve found it so hugely disappointing (a rival, in fact, to Spiritualized’s “Songs In A&E” as my biggest personal disappointment of 2008 thus far). Perhaps it’s churlish to suggest that Jim James and his band should play out their entire career in a Louisville grain silo; certainly, James has long talked of ambitions that stretched much further than that transcendant strain of southernish rock.
But still, “Evil Urges” comes as something of a shock, as the band attempt some kind of silvery digital pop, and an appallingly clumsy funk number called “Highly Suspicious” which our office has variously compared to Muse’s “Supermassive Black Hole”, Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love” and, God help us, The Electric Six.
Perhaps more disappointing, though, are the more conventional songs, which follow the template of old-model MMJ, but seem blander, more polished, less spooked – less coated in reverb and, instead, properly recorded, some may argue. Those defenders of “Evil Urges” are already pushing it hard in the States and, certainly, the band seem poised for some sort of crossover success, whatever that means. I’m sure the live shows will still be terrific – at the Hop Farm festival supporting Neil Young, for a start.
For the time being, though, “Fleet Foxes” is a much more satisfying record. As I said last time, there’s something a little bit hokey about the band, with the constant poetic referencing of an American wilderness and the appropriation of Sacred Harp-style harmonies (on the fantastic “White Winter Hymnal”, especially). But it works tremendously well here, another fine example of a new strain of Americana – alongside Bon Iver, Phosphorescent and maybe Samamidon – that aims for a kind of backwoods etherealism rather than earthy authenticity.
I’m not going to write too much about the specifics of the album here, because I don’t want to be repeat myself in the review for the magazine. But my initial fears that Fleet Foxes had stretched themselves a bit too thinly, given the consistent excellence of the six songs on the imminent “Sun Giant” EP, have proved unfounded. The band are certainly operating in a very narrow musical channel, that sometimes can feel a bit repetitive: delicate acoustics, celestial harmonies, a mild tumble of drums, some stuff about mountains and frozen rivers and so on.
But after a few close listens, two thoughts occur: one, that Robin Pecknold’s songcraft is actually very strong, exploiting endless subtle, delicate twists on his formula; and two, that his formula is so seductive, Fleet Foxes might as well play “White Winter Hymnal” for 40 minutes, and I’d still be hooked. Very interested to see them live, too, when I suspect there’s scope to grow some of these songs a bit more rock muscle – without, hopefully, obscuring their striking charm. Touring the UK in June, I believe. . .