Friday, May 13, 2011

Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues, or: The Real Nature of Music Reviewing

Alan Shepard once said that as he was waiting to be the first American in space, all he could think was that “every part of this ship was built by the low bidder.” As I ponder the Fleet Foxes’ new album, Helplessness Blues, I can’t help think about such compromises when it comes to the business of reviewing music on a professional level.

The first group of reviews about a certain piece of music, art or film is usually based upon haste. The reviewer often has to meet a deadline in the spirit of producing the first published critique of said work. When a new album such as Helplessness Blues hits the stores, listeners immediately want to know if it’s worth buying. As a result, every publication wants to get the scoop even though this type of music really requires time to bloom and develop emotional tangents in the listener’s mind. (Think about the mixed reviews Exile on Main Street and The White Album received when first released.) A perfect example of this would be a review I once read about Coldplay’s 2008 album Vida la Viva. The reviewer was so enamored with the fact that he was able to score an LP copy a couple of days before it was available that he actually told his readers to play hooky from work in order to stand in line to get one of the first copies. Embarrassing dorkiness and Coldplay backlash notwithstanding, this type of comment utterly reeks of whorishness, as in “Keep sending me free albums and I’ll keep delivering rave reviews, especially if it’s a scoop.”

I bring this up because I was placed under similar pressure when I reviewed the first Fleet Foxes album for a certain publication. I had to finish a review quickly in order to meet a deadline, and I only had a chance to listen to this album—one that gradually evolved into a personal favorite for the 21st century— a couple of times. I did get a handle on the timelessness of the Fleet Foxes’ sound, but it didn’t dawn on me that this was actually folk music until a few more listens—the rich harmonies had only reminded me of the Beach Boys up to that point and I actually included that superficial comment in a review that had already been sent. When I saw the published and edited review in the magazine, I wished I could take it back. It seemed almost as if someone else had written it. Such are the hazards of professional music reviews.

That said, I have listened to Helplessness Blues a few times now, and I can honestly state the following:

1.If you love the first Fleet Foxes album, you will probably love this one. It is cut from the same cloth and is an excellent companion piece. The songs are softer and more ambitious (the string arrangements, for example, are an exciting addition), but you will never make the mistake that these songs are coming from anyone other than FF.

2.Robin Pecknold emerges as more of a frontman than ever before. His clear, strong and nearly perfect voice doesn’t reside as deeply in the harmonies as in the first album. I saw the Fleet Foxes perform a couple of years ago at the Moore Theater in Seattle (probably the best concert I’ve seen in the last ten years), and I watched this man sing to a crowd of a couple thousand acapella and without amplification and he sent chills down my spine. He is, to use a cliché, the real deal.

3.This new album makes me smile more than any other album I’ve heard in quite a while. These involuntary responses of joy usually come when the song suddenly shifts gears and takes enormous risks in terms of instrumentation and song structure. The Fleet Foxes may be mining a particularly classic musical genre, but they do it in a way that is fresh, adventurous and unique.

4.“Bedouin Dress,” with its almost jazzy fiddle touches, may be the most surprising song they’ve ever done and suggests a multitude of new directions. Conversely, “Battery Kinzie” is the most ordinary song they’ve yet recorded. The last couple of minutes of “The Shrine/An Argument” are so atonal that you’ll wonder if you wandered into a different album entirely.

5.I would trade a little of their trademark serenity for a modicum of wild abandon. I find myself wishing that they’d open up and rock a little more. But that may be missing the point.

So this rumination on music reviewing begs the question of whether or not I—and every other self-proclaimed music critic out there—should attempt a follow-up review on this rich, complex and somewhat elusive album a few weeks down the line. As a mere blogger I certainly have that luxury, but those getting paid to write about Helplessness Blues should be facing a conundrum. Ten years from now I think you may see a lot more written about the enduring achievements this Seattle band has offered the world, but for now we only have fleeting (pun intended) and hurried impressions from hired guns. Is it enough to prompt you to buy this album? Will it be your thing? Will you love it as much as I do? I won’t even attempt to postulate.

I will offer one final comment. Someone has already asked me if I got this on vinyl. As of this writing, it’s not yet available. I do know that the first album was available on LP a few months after the CD was released, and I had a chance to compare the sound quality of both. It was almost identical. In fact, it was probably one of the rare times I preferred the sound of the CD to the LP, which meant that the former was probably cut from the same master. So play hooky from work and either get this into your CD player or download it into your computer now rather than later. Ten years from now, you may thank me for giving you the additional time to ponder the ultimate value of Helplessness Blues.

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