Uncut Music Award 2011: Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues”

In today's transcript, the judges debate the second album by former Uncut Music Award winners, Fleet Foxes.

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In today’s transcript, the judges debate the second album by former Uncut Music Award winners, Fleet Foxes.

Allan Jones: Their first record was, of course, the winner of the first Uncut Music Award. It gave them a mountainous task in how to match it, it’s taken them three years, but I think anything they did as a follow-up was going to be judged against that debut, and maybe overshadowed by it. That seems to be the opinion of some people, but personally I thought it was an even better record; much more personal, much more emotionally engaging than the debut, without surrendering any of the glorious melodic virtues, the harmonies. Just a terrific record, I thought. Stewart, did you like it?


Stewart Lee: Not really, but I didn’t like the first one much either. I feel that there must be something wrong with me, I feel that I can’t be hearing it right. There’s no mess in it, there’s no surprises in it, it all seems so perfectly positioned. I feel like I want something else to happen in it that’s not there, it all seems to lie there just so. I know it takes a lot of work to get a record to sound like that, but in the Bill Callahan record and the Josh T Pearson record the guitars do things you wouldn’t expect quite a lot, the rhythm breaks down and stuff happens, but this to me sounds more like chamber music that’s achieved a point of perfection and will play out the same way every time.

Allan Jones: Robin [Pecknold] went back to the album after it was finished and did a lot of re-recording, and he’s admitted himself that he became obsessed with the idea of how it should sound.

Nick Stewart: I approached this from a couple of directions. If there hadn’t been the first album, how would you view this one? It’s the traditional A&R man’s problem, in that you have 18, 20 years to make the first album and 18 months to make the second. There are a couple of outstanding tunes here, “Lorelei” is quite a magical song. There are quite a lot of sophomore albums aren’t quite as good as the first one; I don’t think this is as good as their first album, I don’t think it sounds as fresh, even though all the mannerisms that you would associate with them are in there. Having said that, “Lorelei” is an exceptional piece of music, and so is the title track, but for my money, as a whole it’s not quite as good as the first album. There are no stylistic changes at all, it’s been made in exactly the same way, but just not as good. They don’t seem to have moved on at all. It’s a very good record, but there doesn’t seem to have been any progression.


Mark Cooper: I’m kind of with Stewart on this. I find them a slightly hard band to warm to, they’re easy to admire but hard to love. They’re quite an architectural band, if that’s the right word, I find them quite formal in design. I understand it’s a more personal record than the last, but it doesn’t really hit home with me, all I can hear is the architecture. It’s been most brilliantly achieved, sonically, so I admire them for that, probably more so on this record than the last. I guess it has the same problem as the Bon Iver record, in that it’s following such a startling debut. I don’t know if they have to move on, sometimes people create such a landscape on their first record that all they can do is deepen that landscape. It probably does deepen it, but I don’t think it surprises us. The first record felt so different to everything else, this doesn’t.

Phil Manzanera: I didn’t like it as much as their first one. I bought this on iTunes when it came out, and I must have downloaded the songs in the wrong order, because when I heard them in this order, on the actual disc, I was really disappointed! The way I first heard it, they started with an instrumental and I thought “How incredibly brave of them!”.

Tony Wadsworth: That was the surprise some of us were looking for!

Phil Manzanera: When I finally heard it in the sequence they intended, starting with “Montezuma”, I just didn’t like it as much as before. It just shows you that the order of the songs can be so incredibly important, you could actually end up with a different album.

Stewart Lee: My mum taped a Randy Crawford album at the wrong speed once, and drove around listening to the cassette for about three years before I pointed out her mistake. She didn’t like it the way it was supposed to sound.

Phil Manzanera: I understand this is a much more personal album for Robin, and seems to be centred around him and the others doing backing vocals, whereas the first record sounded much more uniformed. I think they made a mistake there, because I think there’s a lot more to get out of the band than appears here. Maybe that’s what’s needed to take them to the next level, get the band more involved.

Tony Wadsworth: It must be really hard for them, because the first album did sound really fresh, it was different from anything else that was around at the time, and it was pretty fully formed stylistically as well. Then you’ve got to work out where you go to with Album Two – do you make a radical departure, or do you consolidate? I think what they’ve gone for is consolidation, it doesn’t feel like it’s progressed because the style was already more or less there on the first one. Without taking a real left turn, which I wish they had done, then there isn’t too much more they can do with that sound.

Nick Stewart: Yes, it’s like what Mark said about their architecture, they’ve got trapped in this rather ornate building.

Tony Wadsworth: It almost feels like Part Two of the first album. It sounds beautiful, you’ve still got all those Crosby, Stills & Nash elements in there, but while there are two or three really amazing tunes on the first album, I don’t think there are here. The other thing is that I find it really difficult to relate to their lyrics, they’re so obtuse. I don’t really know what he’s singing about.

Nick Stewart: If you look at how the lyrics are reproduced in the packaging it’s absurd, it’s almost as if they don’t want you to read them. Sometimes you can read white-on-black, but you can’t really read this, can you?

Stewart Lee: It seems that everyone’s finding really odd reasons to dislike this record – the songs are in the wrong order, the typeface is no good! Maybe it’s the fact that you don’t like it means you more easily notice these other things, like the font’s wrong!

Tony Wadsworth: I think it’s perfectly good, but just not as exciting as when I heard the first album. It does feel like it’s treading water, which is a terrible thing to say when you consider they’ve spent three years making it. I feel for them, for where they’re at and the pressure on them after the success of the first album, so maybe they’ll be more relaxed when it comes to making the next album.

Linda Thompson: I feel the same way, I didn’t like it as much as the first one. I dunno, some of their harmonies are so tight; I mean, never mind Crosby, Stills & Nash, this actually sounds Gregorian in places, and I fucking hate Gregorian.

Allan Jones: I think that’s what you said about the first album, Linda.

Linda Thompson: Yes, and I still feel the same! Overall, I liked it but not as much as their first, and I feel like I’m damning it with faint praise. It’s obvious that they worked incredibly hard on it, but I’ve not given much thought to them changing musical direction of moving it on, because this is what they do, and they’re brilliant at it. I don’t know, it’s not as if they would suddenly do a salsa record or something.

Mark Cooper: I do think it underlines how hard it is if you’ve had a successful first record these days. So few people follow up a successful debut record with something that sells as well, so it’s more interesting in some ways to see Gillian Welch, who has three or four previous records, or PJ Harvey, who’s been around 20 years, on this list.

Linda Thompson: I think we’ve all gone for the punter’s approach with this one, that lowest common denominator thing of not thinking it’s as good as the first record. That’s a shame, maybe, but it’s the way a lot of people will be thinking.

Nick Stewart: Parts of it, “Lorelei” in particular, are better than the first one. But there’s often a thought of “if it’s not broke, don’t try to fix it”. But I think you do have to keep shifting, keep moving forward.

Phil Manzanera: You have to be a bit braver, but the politics involved makes it complicated as to how brave you can be. If you come up with something too different to something that sold well the last time, you might not be giving the same marketing push.

Tony Wadsworth: I think they’ve been left to do whatever they wanted to do.

Mark Cooper: Maybe they needed someone to say “You’ve only written four brilliant songs here, why don’t you go away again and write 10”!

Linda Thompson: Poor things! Writing four is pretty good, isn’t it?

Mark Cooper: It’s your favourite on the list, though, isn’t it, Allan?

Allan Jones: I loved it, it’s not my favourite, I don’t think. I find it much more emotionally engaging, I got really into the songs. I went to Seattle to do a cover story interview and spent a lot of time talking to Robin about it, so I listened to it in a rather different way than I did the first one. I immediately loved the first one although it took me a while to understand why I liked it so much, apart from the glorious sound of it, but I think the songs are more interesting on this one. I think they were under an enormous amount of pressure, obviously, but I think a lot of it was self-inflicted because there was very little interference in the recording process from Bella Union. They’re not the kind of label that dictates to the artist, and perhaps, as has been suggested today, they were given slightly too much freedom. Robin was double-thinking himself all the time and went back to revise tracks, to give it that extra level of polish, and I know some people think he may have polished the life out of it. But it’s a record I deeply love.


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