Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues (Cover Artwork)

Fleet Foxes

Helplessness Blues (2011)

Sub Pop

With an absolutely incredible self-titled debut in 2008, listeners pined for more when the last track ended, hoping another solid release would soon follow from Fleet Foxes. Now we've been presented three years later with Helplessness Blues, a stripped-down vision from vocalist/guitarist Robin Pecknold who stated in 2009 that he'd like to record the album in one take, similar to Van Morrison's legendary Astral Weeks (1968) but that it would be "less poppy" and "less upbeat." The result is astounding: 12 songs of folksy goodness from a band seriously on top of their game.

The first track, "Montezuma" starts in a reflective fashion typical of the band. "So now I am older than my mother and father, when they had their daughter; now what does that say about me?" The tune starts with a quiet guitar only, before Pecknold's swelling vocals and the group's harmonies take over. He laments later on, "Oh man what I used to be"–a sad song and an excellent opener.

This album has some damn zingers on it. "Sim Sala Bim", for one, has to be one of the greatest songs written by the band. The way the lyrics and melody are presented is simply beautiful, especially during the chorus harmonies. These guys really shine here, as the song goes from a quiet love song to a fast-paced acoustic showdown at the end, complete with mandolin.

I would be remiss to neglect just a few others on here: "Lorelai" and the final track "Grown Ocean". The first has one hell of an earworm for a melody, something not uncommon for this particular band. The song chugs right along to lyrics like "I was old news to you then," and the wistful "So, guess I got old, I was like trash on the sidewalk." It's cheerful, with a few self-deprecating lyrics, reflecting on life's many pratfalls.

The album ends with "Grown Ocean", one of my all-time favorites by the band. I recently watched the music video, which goes perfectly with the tune. The accompanying video of the band on tour, recording and having the time of their lives hits hard and has the ability to make a person wonder where their lives are headed. Some of the most heartbreaking, poignant lyrics come from this one, such as "I know someday the smoke will all burn off, all these voices I'll someday have turned off." Also worth noting is the ever-present harmonies from bandmates J. Tillman and guitarist Christian Wargo, this track featuring some of their best.

This is one hell of an album. Fleet Foxes' 2008 debut was nothing to sneeze at, but this just might top it. These guys are truly talented musicians and some of their most inspired and challenging work can be found on Helplessness Blues. While writing and recording supposedly caused a lot of turmoil around the band due to its meticulous nature, it shows throughout each track of rich, "woodsman-like" vocals accompanied by outstanding harmonies and guitar work. In all, Fleet Foxes have once again proven themselves as indie folk giants capable of taking on an epic followup. A must-have.