“Music is a weird and cosmic thing, its own strange religion for nonbelievers, and what a joy it is to make, in any form”- Fleet Foxes
I feel like last fall was my time of interesting musical discovery. I got into a lot of bands that I might not have listened to before, including MGMT, Ugly Casanova, and Kings of Leon. But, most unlikely of them all was Fleet Foxes.
Fleet Foxes is an indie band that formed in Seattle, Washington. My boyfriend at the time, lives in Seattle, and had been hearing a lot of buzz around town about them. He got their self-titled debut, and then urged me to listen to it too.
Lush harmonies, music, and brilliant storytelling make up the majority of the music on Fleet Foxes. Their sound is one not heard in the mainstream music arena at all; their sound is organic- filled with drums, acoustic guitar, banjos, and tambourines. The result is a very indie, woodsy-type sound that flows throughout the album, which, on some days, paints the perfect soundtrack for a bright summer day or a dim winter evening on others.
Some of the aforementioned harmonizing opens the first track, Sun It Rises. Robin Pecknold leads most of the singing in the band (he is also the sole songwriter), but the harmonies are always shared with guitarists (Skyler Skjelset and Christian Wargo), keyboardist (Casey Wescott) and drummer (Nicholas Peterson was the drummer when this song was released, he has since been replaced by J. Tillman). These harmonies go own throughout the song, accompanied mostly by banjo, drums and guitar. The lyrics are few (“Sun risin’ over my head/In the morning window”), but are used with the cheerful harmonies to set up a perfect image of a bright, sunny morning.
It’s rare that you hear a recorded song being performed in a round, but that’s just what happens with White Winter Hymnal. The title may lead you to believe that the song has some sort of religious meaning, though it doesn’t (unless you really want to take the lyrics and interpret them in some insanely “deep” way); mostly the song is an ode to winter. Again, the harmonies sung in the rounds are fantastic- I could listen to this song on repeat for hours, and just get caught up in the drumming and singing that goes on. Lyrically, the song also paints a lovely picture- the imagery alone (“I was following the pack/All swallowed in their coats/With scarves of red tied ‘round their throats/To keep their little heads/From fallin’ in the snow/And I turned ‘round and there you go/And, Michael, you would fall/And turn the white snow red as strawberries/In the summertime..”) is enough to make me love this song. The music and lyrics together make the song my absolute favorite on the album- simply genius.
One of the benefits of living in Nevada is that I get to be around some of nature’s most beautiful objects- majestic, snow capped mountains in the winter, or rugged, scenic desert in the summertime- all within a thirty minute drive to work. I’ve found that Ragged Wood always plays perfectly along with this scenery. The opening lyrics alone sound like an ode to Nevada (“Come down from the mountain, you have been gone too long/The spring is upon us, follow my only song”), though Pecknold has said that a lot of the lyrics were inspired by the woodsy areas in Washington. Again, the lyrics are a complete joy (“Tell me anything you want, any old lie will do/Call me back to you”), as well as the music- which this time is composed of some background harmonies, tambourines, and lots of drums. A break towards the end strips down most of the production, changing up the tempo and leaving more focus on a quiet harmony that sounds exquisite.
Up to this point of the album, most of the songs have been upbeat and exuberant. The tempo changes completely for the first time with Tiger Mountain Peasant Song. Never mind the odd title- this song is another of the highlights on the album. “Wanderers this morning came by,” Pecknold sings at the beginning, leading into a reflective song about life and death (“Through the forest/Down to your grave/Where the birds wait/And the tall grasses wave/They do not know you anymore”). As I said, the sound is quieter this time- Pecknold’s vocals are appropriately solemn, and the only real instruments heard are piano and an incredibly lovely acoustic guitar. The bittersweet lyrics always reminds me of my favorite Robert Frost poem, “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening”, particularly, the feeling of loneliness that you get from the narrator (“In the town one morning I went/Staggering through premonitions of my death/I don’t see anybody that dear to me”). The emotional lyrics and delivery almost always make me cry, and you feel as though you’re in the same place as the narrator as Pecknold sings the final lines, “I don’t know what I have done, I’m turning myself into a demon.”
Quiet Houses is anything but quiet. The opening harmonies are like a trumpet sounding, picking up the somber mood from the song before, and leaving it behind to make way for another upbeat, fun tune. Though Pecknold is most certainly an amazing lyricist, some of the joy from listening to these songs really lays in the instrumentation and vocals. This time around, we can hear more banjo, tambourines and drumming, and of course, those spot on vocal harmonies. I can only imagine how much fun it would be to sing in this band.
He Doesn’t Know Why has a very homegrown sound to it- like you almost expect these guys to be out in your backyard by the shade tree, playing these instruments and singing to you. Though the music is light and carefree, the lyrics describe a different mood completely (“Penniless and tired, with your hair grown long/I was looking at you there and your face looked wrong/Memory is a fickle siren song/I didn’t understand”), and the final lines definitely tell a sad story (“There’s nothing I can do/There’s nothing I can say”).
A piano instrumental at the end of He Doesn’t Know Why leads into Heard Them Stirring. The band begins with some of their trademark harmonies before instruments are added in, though the harmonies keep going on throughout. Again, the sound of all these songs is so lush and captivating; this song is another that I could just listen to with my eyes closed, lying on the floor, for hours and hours. The track is completely instrumental- not a single word is sung- but the melody and music is so enchanting that you won’t notice, or care. It’s so easy to get caught up in their sound that you forget everything else, especially in this track.
Meanwhile, Your Protector, has a very sort of baroque feeling to it; this sounds like some of the traditional music you’d hear playing in the background of a Renaissance fair. The band makes this sound work for them without it sounding contrived or gimmicky- instead it just sounds like an experiment with sound that went surprisingly right. The lyrics, again, tell a cohesive story (“She left a week to roam/Your protector’s coming home/Keep your secrets with you, girl/Safe from the outside world”), but my favorite is one simple, repeated line from the bridge- “You run with the devil”.
Meadowlark arrives as a melancholy ballad. The music is both beautiful and sad, and the lyrics go in accordance with the melody (“Don’t believe a word that I haven’t heard/Little children laughing at the boys and girl/The meadowlark singing to you each and every day/The arch-line on the hillside and the market in the hay”), once again, creating a perfect image along with the lush music in the background. Easily overlooked, but brilliant, is Blue Ridge Mountains. The song begins so harmlessly and hushed that it’s simple to forget the song is on the album at all. However, by the first verse, the acoustic guitar kicks in and so do Pecknold’s lyrics, as he tells another gorgeously illustrated story with the lyrics (“In the quivering forest/Where the shivering dog rests/Our good grandfather/Built a wooden nest/And the river got frozen/And the home got snowed in/And the yellow moon glowed bright/Till the morning light”).
The disc wraps up with Oliver James, a gentle, smooth ballad. Though the music sounds pretty and romantic, the lyrics are anything but- the song is actually a sad story of a child drowning (“On the way to your brother’s house in the valley, dear/By the river bridge a cradle floating beside me/In the whitest water on the banks against the stone/You will lift his body from the shore and bring him home/Oliver James washed in the rain no longer”). Though the lyrical content is definitely unexpected, Pecknold sings the song poignantly, creating a perfect tribute for poor Oliver James. I don’t know if the song is based on a real life story, or just another vivid image in Pecknold’s head; however, the track is an absolutely perfect end to the album.
The first time you listen to Fleet Foxes, you might not really get into them. The second and third times might be hard for you too, especially if you’re putting it on as background music. You have to really stop and listen to appreciate the musicianship and lyrics in all of the wonderful songs that make up this album. And I promise you, after you listen and let it all sink in, you’ll become a fan, too.
1. Sun It Rises
2. White Winter Hymnal
3. Ragged Wood
4. Tiger Mountain Peasant Song
5. Quiet Houses
6. He Doesn’t Know Why
7. Heard Them Stirring
8. Your Protector
10. Blue Ridge Mountains
11. Oliver James