What is a ‘Christmas-y’ sound?

What is something that sounds like snow falling? That lulls you into that fireplace-glow warmth? For me, it is Fleet Foxes. I mean, who can deny a hot cocoa, low lights, acoustic guitars, choral voices, and tons of reverb on these long December nights? I mean, I can’t.

I tend not to make generalisations, but I really have to say, the Fleet Foxes are an amazing band. For one thing, they are very musically talented. But, they know exactly how to use their talent to produce perfect results. Listening to this band is not like listening to many other bands, it is listening to a sound. The cohesion between instruments, the part writing, the melodies, the rhythms, the harmonies – everything flows and intermingles wonderfully. In the era of power-pop and glam, of consumable songwriting and marketable one-hit-wonders, Fleet Foxes adeptly disregard the formulaic methods and means by which modern mainstream is made to sink into their sea of soundscapes. Undulating vocal waves and washes of guitar carry you far and wide.

Fleet Foxes formed, shockingly, in the American northwest. Robin Pecknold and Skyler Skjelset are the two founding members of the band, meeting in a high school in suburban Seattle. Influenced by the likes of Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Neil Young, and Brian Wilson, they began songwriting straight away. Pecknold became the main voice of the group, writing in mostly a mid- to late-’60s pop style. The two musicians were joined by various others, and with the help of producer Phil Ek, they began to work on their first self-released, self-titled EP in 2006. Local media began taking notice of the band after its release, and it received good reviews in Seattle tabloids. The EP inherits much from Wilson in its vocal style, and from Dylan in chord use, voicing and instrumentation. The originality of sound achieved, however, is striking.

From the beginning, instead of just sounding like a ’60s knockoff band, the Fleet Foxes were already steeped in a sensuous and swimmingly serene sound. In 2008, after much online exposure, mainly through Myspace, their digital word-of-mouth exposure got them a record deal to Warner Music subsidiary label Sub Pop. With this step up, they began working on their second EP, Sun Giant, with little expectation. Pecknold later explained that the group just wanted an album to sell on their US and European tours (even though this EP was as well received as the previous). But the time had come. After extensive touring (for a young band), they pulled forces together to create their first full-length album: Fleet Foxes.

This album was considered by many to be a masterpiece. From Rolling Stone to The Guardian, it received rave reviews. With comparisons to bands such as Crosby, Stills & Nash, The Beach Boys, and Animal Collective, the group was well received and welcomed into the popular American music scene. Sonically, this was a natural progression from their EPs. Choral harmonies, majestic guitars, hypnotizing drum rhthms, with an overall ’60s vibe (yet still completely original), the Fleet Foxes were on the right track for musical success. After much more touring, the band released their second album, Helplessness Blues. This, yet again, was a masterpiece of universal acclaim.

Except for some people. I suppose some had had enough by this point. NME wrote an excellent view for this album, arguing that ‘[Fleet Foxes] peddle the same sort of fake-rustic rootsiness that seems to be colonising our era: all these flatpack off-the-peg dreams of Ruritania that iPad-stashing mid-lifes have taken up as a counterpoint to their rabid technophilia. They lull you in with their flawlessly polished music and hey-nonny-nonny you into a hypnagogic state, with the aim of making the world safe for the bland, the dull and the wi-fi enabled.’

Clearly not everyone is keen on Fleet Foxes. Helplessness Blues continues the natural progression that they have kept up since their first EP. If you are immediately seduced by folk-indie-pop soundscape and rustic textures, then Fleet Foxes are for you. But if you consider pastoral neo-folk pop, eclectic rhythms, choral voicings, and seamless production to be nothing more than ‘canoeing music,’ then don’t even go for it. I am partial to the former. I readily appreciate any band that tastefully manages to design and produce their own, iconic sound; any band that has a sound in their head that performs it perfectly.

While I can’t speak for Fleet Foxes, all I can say is good work, and keep it up. Their pioneering songwriting and arranging are not for all, but even so, on the long, late nights of this cold December, I think they’re at least worth a try (by that I mean I think they’re awesome and you should definitely listen to them). Hot cocoa is good for the soul in these dark months – even if you think they are the Starbucks ‘soy-latte’ of music as some term it, they’ll still warm you up and get the job done.

Listen, and watch!

 

Michael Melia

Image – Shiretoko-Shari Tourist Association