In Brief: A beautiful and nearly flawless introduction to the Fleet Foxes sound… but for the full immersive experience, try their full-length album and then this EP.
Those who were on top of things in the indie rock world got introduced to Fleet Foxes last year by way of their EP Sun Giant, which preceded the release of their full-length debut by a few months despite being recorded after the fact. Since I wasn’t so on the ball and I got into the band after their full-length was already on the market (which is generally the better way to introduce me to a band anyway), I was left craving “More! More! More!”, but didn’t realize there was another little morsel out there to help tide me over. Maybe too much of a good thing at once might have dulled the effect, but for whatever reason, I saved Sun Giant for the new year. And now, having had the chance to digest these 5 brief but lovely songs, I can say that I wouldn’t have minded at all if they had been tacked onto the band’s full-length album, rounding it out to 16 tracks. These guys aren’t known to be long-winded, so it still would have run less than an hour long. (The band needed something to sell on their tours before the album came out, I guess. I’m no businessman.)
For those who still haven’t been invited into the Foxes’ lovely world, they’re a Seattle-based band with a strong love for folk/rock sounds hearkening back to the 1960’s and 70’s, and uncanny vocal harmonies that reach way back before that. They sound as comfortable with big, jangly electric guitars and thundering drums creating an electrical storm around them as they do with a lone acoustic guitar, or even with just their naked voices filling the clear sky. They’re so passionate and yet so easy-going that it’s tempting to accuse them of sounding grandiose while having nothing specific to say beyond their vague exhortations to various brothers and lovers. Yet the magic lies in the way that they put words and notes together – thoughts are impressed upon us without necessarily having full sentences in place to describe them in clear terms. Places and people are evoked without a linear storyline taking us from A to B. It’s not the vague, pedestrian songwriting so commonly heard on modern rock radio. It’s specific and yet diffuse. But I wouldn’t call is meaningless… just subjectively meaningful.
What’s presented on Sun Giant may be a slight step down from the full power of the band’s debut album, but for those like me who fell in love with the band’s woodsy sound, it’s hard to say no to “more of the same” when the level of quality is still high enough to not make this feel like a collection of B-sides at all.
1. Sun Giant
What a life i lead when the sun breaks free
As a giant torn from the clouds
What a life indeed when that ancient seed
Is a berry watered and plowed…
It takes guts for the members of a band to introduce themselves to the general public with nothing but the sound of their voices, and that’s what Fleet Foxes does for almost a full two minutes at the beginning of this EP, offering up this bare psalm, which echoes as if sung in an empty cathedral. It could be the voice of a thankful farmer watching his crops spring up during the growing season, or it could be the voice of the sun itself. There’s little to work with in terms of lyrics, but what’s there is beautiful. A brief interlude played on the mandolin is also lovely, but like a few of the interludes on Fleet Foxes’ album, it makes the mistake of being thematically disconnected from the songs before or after it.
2. Drops in the River
You hesitate so my memory fade, I’ll hold to the first one
I wouldn’t turn to another you say, on the long night we’ve made
Let it go…
Is that a sitar? Whatever that buzzing, exotic, twangy sound is in the distance, it immediately whisks us away to the forested mountains of some other country, as the band slowly unveils their first rocker, a tune that undergoes wild mood swings as it builds from hushed, poetic observations of nature to a big, booming chorus filled with pounding drums and jangly electric guitar. The soft/loud dynamic is nothing new in rock music, but I love how these guys marry it to the sound of timeless, reverent folk music – when they reach their most intense sonic peaks, it can sound like there are ten people in this band instead of five.
3. English House
Tongues of the creatures wait
Drawn to the fragile legs you walk on
A cold wind blows
Brighton to the coast from me…
The midpoint of this short EP turns out to be its most romantic, evocative track, its lilting acoustic guitar skipping through fields of flowers as wordless vocals provide a cute but irresistible hook. This song is a great example of the band’s ability to evoke a scene without telling a specific story – you could almost accuse them of cheap heartstring-tugging with a chorus that dares to be so blatantly simple as “Ohhhhh, my love” sung over and over, and this would probably fail if the music didn’t evoke Prince Charming himself whisking a lover away into the sunset. (By “fail”, I basically mean “Try to whisk our hearts away with something that’s supposed to be so simple it’s beautiful, but that just turns out to be annoyingly simple, kinda like roughly half of Coldplay‘s X&Y album”.) The band evokes a mixture of light and dark in the English scenery it describes – it’s green and pastoral, yet dark and cloudy, and despite the promise of a romantic tryst at a “country house”, it’s also indicated that “a liar and a louse live there”, so there’s something more devious lurking just under the surface. The guitar and mandolin breakdown in the center of this song is absolutely delectable, with the toms pounding away as if the song were documenting the beating of a young person’s lovelorn heart.
I remember how they took you down
As the winter turned the meadow brown
You go wherever you go today…
Here our scenic locale changes from England to Greece, though the musical mood shifts back to more of an Americana feel, with the sweet “ohhh”s sung by Robin Pecknold and his bandmates giving that unmistakable medieval/madrigal feel that makes the band stand out so much. There’s more than just a sunny vacation being sung about here, as Robin promises his “brother” that he’ll find some sort of peace and clarity on the far-flung Greek island, “a sun to maybe dissipate shadows of the mess you’ve made”. Perhaps there was some sort of a fight or conflict here, because the gentle vocal breakdown that takes the song into its second movement (which is slower and more musically intense than the first) leads to a brief acapella verse that offers a plea for reconciliation: “Brother, you don’t need to turn me away.” While the vague final chorus of “You go wherever you go today” may bug me a little bit, this is still a beautiful song from its first note to its final fade-out.
5. Innocent Son
Rust suddenly falling beside me on a ghost of a morning
Riding in sorrow to the harbor
Far behind me, the bodies of my friends
Hanging alone, alone again…
Just as he did on “Oliver James”, Pecnkold strikes out on his lonesome for this delicate acoustic ballad, which carries a sense of remorse similar to the band’s “Tiger Mountain’s Peasant Song”, but with a slower pace. A loss of innocence is being mourned here, perhaps a bit of survivor’s guilt after seeing several friends pass away, or perhaps the deaths mentioned are metaphorical and these people were victims of his betrayal. Interpretation is sketchy since lyrics are so few, and the song wraps itself up sooner than expected with Pecnkold’s final haunting, acapella verse. I might wish that there were a little more to it, but for the track that stands out the least amongst this short collection of songs, it still holds a subtle power and grace that doesn’t need the “full band attack” to get its point across.
This is a brief EP, so I’ll spare you any further analysis and just say that if you’re already a fan, there’s likely nothing here that you’d object to (and a high likelihood of you falling in love with most of it), so pick it up. If you’re not a fan yet, start with the Fleet Foxes album and work your way backwards. (Er, forwards. Whatever.)
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Sun Giant $1.50
Drops in the River $2
English House $2
Innocent Son $1
Robin Pecknold: Lead vocals, guitars
Skyler Skjelset: Guitars, backing vocals
Craig Curran: Bass, backing vocals
Casey Wescott: Keyboards, backing vocals
Nicholas Peterson: Drums, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.