Fleet Foxes’ debut sounds as though it begins in Appalachia with a front porch family hymn, and makes its way west, trundling across the Midwest on a steam train, getting lost in Utah’s barren gorges, and finally settling in some Laurel Canyon pop oasis. This conceptual arc probably wasn’t conscious. Nonetheless, having lived abroad for the last year, Fleet Foxes makes me miss the States. The album evokes a romanticized view of home, to be sure—all bark and moss, morning mist and rusty creek beds—never mind the trailer parks, mosquitoes and skunk cabbage that would populate a more accurate portrayal of rural America.
At the outset, Fleet Foxes seem to offer a natural progression from scruffy southern rock acts of the 1970s like Crosby Stills Nash & Young and the Band, but when we strip away the facial hair, floppy hats, and reverb, we’re left with a keen understanding of the mechanics of pop melodies. The band’s Wilsonian affection for multi-part harmonies is evident from album opener “Sun It Rises”, and continues throughout. But it’s not just the vocals. The final moments of “Quiet Houses” prove the point with a disorienting Smile-era guitar refrain—nary a voice to be heard.
Despite drawing from such pop-oriented source material, Fleet Foxes avoid conventional song structures, instead opting for dizzying cyclical choruses, Motown-influenced guitar jabs, and almost Gregorian harmonies that swirl around sparse arrangements with an angelic fervor. The boys’ voices rarely go where you’d expect, but upon even one play-through, you can’t imagine them going anywhere else. Song structures seem to be primarily rooted in Brian Wilson’s post-Pet Sounds output. We rarely find the band settling on a single idea for the entire length of a song. Most tracks comprise hymn-like outros, exciting detours and textual contrasts. These mini-suites always flow together sweetly, never feeling half-baked or superfluous.
“Ragged Wood” shoves off with a harmonized “whoa” that sounds like a steam train’s whistle. Midway through, the song’s rollicking beat slows to a tip-toed march, only to pick up again, morphing and swelling into an aching, lovelorn declaration. “Tell me anything you want / Any old lie will do / Call me back to you.”
“Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” hypnotizes for the first time, without the use of vocal harmony. Frontman Robin Pecknold’s voice has been compared to that of My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, and I confess that I had to double check Wikipedia to make sure Fleet Foxes wasn’t his side project. Their voices do bear striking similarities, but Pecknold, hailing from the Pacific Northwest, lacks James’ Kentucky-bred twang. He’s also less willing to throw his voice out or engage in James’ yelping vocal gymnastics. Good thing, because his reserved style marries well with Phil Ek’s pristine production. When Pecknold approaches the slightest yell, his voice quivers and quakes with emotional resonance. It’s breathtaking.
The America of Fleet Foxes is as panoramic as a view from above the tree line and as intimately familiar as hushed whispers around a spitting and crackling campfire. It’s clean and crisp like a naked dip in a mountain spring; warm and inviting like an heirloom quilt. That Fleet Foxes have crafted such a sublime debut less than two years into their existence as a band speaks to their collective pop genius (Oh, and their primary songwriter is 21). Even more, it implies that a goldmine of outstanding material awaits.