It must be hard, when you’re in a popular band like Fleet Foxes with such a distinct sound, to branch out and create a side project. That, however, is exactly what Christian Wargo and Casey Wescott (with brothers Ian and Peter Murray) have tried to do. The pair have created Poor Moon and, after the Illusion EP released earlier this year, they have released their full-length, eponymous debut.
The decision to make it self-titled feels very deliberate here, a move to assert that this is not just Poor Moon’s record, but that the record is Poor Moon, not Fleet Foxes, not anything else. This is where Wargo and Wescott are at musically now, no illusion, just plainspoken declaration. And yet, musically, the album constantly struggles to emerge from the shadow of the pair’s first band. There are plenty of little-used instruments to help them—like marimba, zither, harpsichord, etc.—but the album doesn’t quite carve out its own space with these seemingly eccentric sounds. Opener “Clouds Below” is the same brand of pastoral folk, replete with gliding vocal harmonies, we expect from Fleet Foxes. “Phantom Light” clatters and clacks a bit more fretfully, but it still smooths out into a similarly soothing folk sound.
The album takes a few songs to craft its own personality and sonic landscape, but when it does the songs feel much stronger. The warbling guitar riffs that bounce through “Waiting For” and the steady thump of the drums feels closer to ‘60s-pop than anything you could play around a campfire with an acoustic guitar. It also shifts from the thumping hook of the chorus into off-kilter verses that break up the overall ease of the record’s sound. “Heaven’s Door” has crunchy guitar runs that give way to skronky organs, making for the album’s most shadowy, mysterious, and ultimately fulfilling moment, as the song subtle charges forward with mounting tension. It drops us down into the charged-up Americana of “Pulling Me Down”, which speeds up the group’s folk sound into something a bit more muscled and effective.
In these moments, we get to see what Poor Moon can do when it steps out of its comfort zone. Unfortunately, most of the record cruises along on folksy autopilot. Poor Moon sounds pleasant enough, but it also often feels anonymous. The songs themselves aren’t terribly surprising in their structure or execution, a problem that could be overcome if the words felt more distinct and personal. But on “Birds” there’s the worn plea “don’t you cry” because, though the narrator is dying, “we’ve traveled far and wide”. On “Come Home”, they sing about how “one day you will say the right words”, though what those might be goes unexplained. Whatever they are, and whether they come or not, the narrator is “coming home”. Stars flicker and a “blue moon glows” on “Clouds Below”, and on “Phantom Light” there’s an archetypal old man in his final hours. In short, there’s a lot of by-the-numbers folk tropes that come up here, and little in the vague lines that make up many of these songs brings something fresh to the formula.
In the end, Poor Moon shows it’s hard to pull away from a successful sound like they have with Robin Pecknold in Fleet Foxes. Josh Tillman has done it successfully with Father John Misty, but Tillman has also been making solo records for years, honing his craft, figuring out his voice. Poor Moon still feels like its developing, like it’s unsure of what it will be yet. This makes their first full-length an uneven, sometimes frustratingly safe record, but it also makes it an album of some promise. The surprising moments here are also the best pure pop moments the band creates, so if Wargo and Wescott can build on those they might find the Poor Moon sound they seem to be searching for in these songs.