The Fleet Foxes hit a soft spot with their pastoral brand of baroque pop
I think a certain kind of person settles down to raise a family in the Northwest, and that breeds a certain kind of kid," says Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold. "I definitely feel like a product of my environment in that way, and really can't imagine dying anywhere else. I say 'dying' because it would be nice to live somewhere else for some small amount of time, but I plan to whittle away my last years as close to Seattle as possible. You are close to so much beauty around there."
Indeed. And Pecknold and his mates — guitarist Skyler Skjelset, keyboardist Casey Wescott, bassist Christian Wargo and drummer Josh Tillman — have deftly captured that emerald goodness on songs such as "White Winter Hymnal," a simple, intoxicating folk psalm from the Seattle group's self-titled full-length debut. Upon being issued this past June by Sub Pop, the eponymous release quickly climbed to number one on the CMJ Radio 200 chart and was loudly hailed by everyone from Pitchfork to Rolling Stone.
Listening to the album, it's not difficult to see why the act — which is made up of Seattle veterans, including members of Pedro the Lion and Crystal Skulls — hit such an immediate soft spot with critics. Lushly invoking timeless British and American folk, the Fleet Foxes' "baroque harmonic pop," as the group has dubbed its sound, nods distinctly to classic acts like Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Beach Boys, as well as the occasionally mystic soft ballads of Led Zeppelin, resulting in a sound akin to that of Sub Pop labelmates Band of Horses.
The fact that Pecknold comes from such an intensely musical household — his older sister, Aja, is named after a Steely Dan recording, if that tells you anything — clearly had an impact on him growing up. Barely into his teens, Pecknold was easily and impressively knocking out astute covers of complex classics like Bob Dylan's "Spanish Boots of Spanish Leather." Being sick a lot as a kid gave him plenty of time to hone his vocal and guitar skills. And when he wasn't playing music, Pecknold devoted a significant amount of time to exploring the fantasy realm of story-based video games such as Final Fantasy, whose influence can be detected on tracks like "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song." That particular tune will undoubtedly resonate with anyone who, like Pecknold, spent much of his adolescence glued to a TV screen maneuvering elfin characters through a series of tiny video villages to talk to peasants and search for weapon upgrades along turquoise rivers.
"As an overweight, allergy-stricken kid, I definitely gravitated toward the science room/drama class/Lord of the Rings/Japanese RPG side of the junior-high coin," Pecknold confesses. "And most of the games I played around that time had really beautiful, otherworldly music — games like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy IV. I love that kind of music, same as film music from the '40s and '70s; they seem to invoke similar things, that kind of romantic-adventure music thing."
Likewise, the music created by this fresh-faced 23-year-old songwriter sweeps listeners away to what could either be the 1960s or the 1760s. "I feel like I'm writing about real things and experiences all the time without making much up, even if it sounds shrouded in a little fog," Pecknold explains. "But it's easier for me to fictionalize or gussy up some real-life experience when putting it into song — or at least that was the case when working on the songs released so far. I think there will be a little more reality in the coming albums, or if not...more explicit fantasy!"
Led by Pecknold's huge, versatile voice and mystical, literary lyrics, the Fleet Foxes have already become masters of the deeply haunting, idyllic and sublime. The group's first release, the Sun Giant EP, used unlikely instruments and far-reaching harmonies to spin tales of love, spirituality and brotherhood. Lines like "Days are just drops in the river to be lost always" and "Brother, you don't need to turn me away" rose above meandering folk, tantalizing those eager for a full-length.
To that end, Fleet Foxes, written entirely by Pecknold, doesn't disappoint: "Ragged Wood" (originally the album's title track) is an unpredictable suite worthy of early-'70s Laurel Canyon rock — not to mention late-1800s romantic poetry; the vocal bliss of "Heard Them Stirring" wouldn't feel out of place on David Crosby's epic If I Could Only Remember My Name; and "Blue Ridge Mountains" starts off with a slow harmony that conjures a bedtime story told by the Beach Boys before morphing into a touching journey through a "quivering forest" where "the river got frozen and the home got snowed in."
Elsewhere, Foxes sheds further light on the genuine, surprising strength that much of the Sun Giant EP also hinted at: "Blue Ridge" and other mesmerizing Foxes songs creatively delineate love between friends and siblings, whereas your typical rock band would sing of unrequited or lost love and its related angsty fare. "I love you, older brother of mine" Pecknold steadfastly warbles on "Blue Ridge Mountains."
"Ever since I started writing songs, when I was like fifteen," Pecknold points out, "I don't think I've ever written a love song in the way you describe. Something is uninteresting to me about romantic love in songs unless the writer is really talented. And more than that, I think I was feeling lots of strong feelings toward and about my family and friends while writing those songs. As far as what influences it...I haven't been in many relationships in my life, and the few I've had have been very long-term. That could be it."
To encounter such openness and sincerity in this day and age is refreshing. But it suits Pecknold's unique style — both as an individual and as a songwriter — which is so naturally earnest and colloquial, you'd think he was auditioning for a high school Battle of the Bands. With that in mind, Pecknold says that the Fleet Foxes' only aim at this point is to convey their life experience and artistic character openly.
"For me, the records I found most solace in and was moved by were Joni Mitchell's Blue, Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, and Pet Sounds," he concludes. "I find music that sounds like it's trying to move me is the last music that ever could. Really, the only goal with this stuff is to be honest musically and personally, and maybe that comes across."
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