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Sim Sala Bim , Thank You Fleet Foxes





I’m not much for Old Time, Folk or Bluegrass music, although there was a time when I went through my Bill Monroe phase and immersed  myself in  the world of  claw-hammer, flat pickin’, fiddlin’ fury.  However, I have always been easily bored musically especially when a genre has a sameness to it that many find soothing but I find suffocatingly boring. So after a year or two of listening to people like that aforementioned Master, Bill Monroe and his musical progeny including  everyone from Del McCoury to Doc Watson to those innovators of the Brand, The Red Clay Ramblers, I got sick of hearing the same arrangements, played by the same set of instruments with that same “high, lonesome sound” that began to grate rather than inspire or sooth.  Going to bluegrass/folk music festivals soon became an exercise in measuring musical dicks as the tunes, arrangements and singing never changed, but all the pleasure was derived from seeing a real fast guitar picker or someone who could saw on a fiddle like some animal chewing its leg off to escape. And eventually all this made me want to escape and listen to something different. I’ve heard all the bluegrass music I need to hear.  Same goes for Old Time string bands, jug bands and sadly, Cajun bands.  I’d thought I had heard all I wanted to hear from Irish music until bands like Black 47, Waterboys, Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys saved the genre for me.  I felt the same way about Folk music until just a few years ago when the daughter of a co-worker told me I had to buy a CD from a band from the Pacific Northwest called Fleet Foxes.

Now, again, I have to say that I had my dalliance with folk music which was more or less restricted to the old folkies of the 50’s and 60’s like the Weavers, Dylan (pre-electric), Woody Guthrie, Dave Van Ronk and the Folk Madonna Trinity of Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins. Throw in some David Bromberg, Harry Chapin, Richard/Linda Thompson and the Mcgarrigles and that’s the extent of my interest which quickly waned once I had heard all the cleverly turned musical stories and rousing political/work songs I could stand. Conversely from bluegrass music, folk emphasizes the lyrical poetry, and singing rather than any extraordinary technical prowess with instruments (Richard Thompson being the exception here). The real difference between folk music and the other genres I have mentioned is that folk does, in fact, evolve, but at a pace commensurate with Darwin’s view of evolution i.e. a very gradually, slow process of change over a near geologic time frame.  Folk has gone from its hootenanny protest heyday in the 60’s to slowly morph into a nearly indistinguishable conglomeration of styles including niches like country folk, blues folk, world folk and the simultaneously reviled and beloved EMO. Nowadays with the advent of bands and personalities like Okkervil River, Bon Iver, Patrick Watson, Shearwater,  and The Decembrists we have what we have labeled as Alt Folk.  On the edges of this and straddling across the ages to Old Time folk and even into the dim recesses of Medieval Bardic Traditions are Fleet Foxes.

I would venture to guess that Fleet Foxes are a band that many people do not “get” or even enjoy, right off the bat.  Indeed, I myself when I first listened to their debut, self titled record didn’t care for them, but there was enough of a strangeness in the music to make me curious and continue listening.  In keeping with the best folk traditions, the lyrics were shining slabs of poetry with diamonds encrusted here and there which captured my attention once I listened closer. These lyrics delivered by the slightly nasal yet shimmering chrome voice of Robin Pecknold were elegies to yearning, lost love, unrequited pairings, the taming of beasts and the harvesting of crops;  these words conjuring up a burnished bronzing of memories and nostalgia for a time and a place in a past that never existed.

               Meadowlark, fly your way down,
               I hold a cornucopia and a golden crown
              for you to wear upon your fleece'd gown.
              Ah meadowlark, sing to me.

All of this poetry delivered in reverb drenched sound and seamlessly tight harmonies with band mates, Chris Wargo, Casey Wescott and Joshua Tillman who provide a choir-like sound that groups of fifty or more wished they could accomplish.



The initial full-length album “Fleet Foxes” was a smash hit as far as Alt Folk records go selling upwards of 300,000 units in six months and garnering many awards including Album of the Year from Billboard.  Typically, sophomore albums are a let down and I was really hoping that this band would keep the ball rolling with their second release called “Helplessness Blues”.  This record exceeded my meager expectations because not only did they keep the ball rolling by staying true to their sound; they pushed the envelope within their group adding new instrumentation, more complex arrangements and weightier lyrics delivered in words that served to dramatize the context more effectively.

                Then the Earth shook, that was all that it took for the dream to break
                All the loose ends would surround me again in the shape of your face

               Are you off somewhere reciting incantations?
               Sim sala bim on your tongue
               Carving off the hair of someone's young

Each song on “Helplessness Blues” is like a musical short story told by some modern day neo-hippy minstrel smelling heavily of Patchouli and wearing a helmet of dreads. You can just imagine the armies of art school kids gathered around their hookahs playing this record over and over and picking out the tunes on guitars too expensive for their abilities.  Don’t misunderstand me, I think that’s a good thing.  Without going into a song by song analysis here, I must say this record is just brilliant.  Mr. Pecknold’s vocals are even better on this effort and its an absolute delight to hear him push his instrument up and down the scales sometimes teetering on the edge of disaster then going forward in surprising ways that amaze and dazzle.  The music.  The music is hard to describe except to say it is as if Radiohead were transported back in time to the Civil War era and were traveling throughout the divided states doing field recordings of themselves interpreting local tunes.  That’s how much of “Helplessness Blues” sounds.  The other bits sound like the lost madrigals of some Chaucerian bard re-tooled for the 21st century.  All, all…of…it is utterly engaging and fresh which is a stunning accomplishment for a second effort.  Lastly, I must gush a bit about the song “Blue Spotted Tail” which is a beautiful tune featuring Mr. Pecknold accompanied by a guitar plucking a simple chord progression.  The song is a plaintive small jewel reminiscent of Don Mclean’s  “Vincent”.  Compared to the other more epic tunes on the record this song clocks in at barely three minutes, but is easily my favorite.  The best folk ballad I’ve heard in a while and I’m not even sure what it’s about, but its absolutely beautiful and worth the price of admission to “Helplessnes Blues” on its own.  Buy this record and you’ll have one of the top ten records of this year and the best (so far) folk record of the year.