The Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues (2011)

There will always be a special place in my heart for the Fleet Foxes. Or, more particularly, their 2008 self-titled debut album. But that special place has maybe less to do with the album itself, and more to do with the memories tied into it.

I'm sure everyone has albums like that - pieces of music that are tied to particular moments in time. I know whenever I hear B.B. King's "Hummingbird" I recall perfect memories involving lying naked in bed with a beautiful brunette; and whenever I hear David Bowie's "Space Oddity" I usually recall wandering the streets of Victoria at one in the morning, lost in thoughts of abandonment and wondering why my beautiful brunette decided to walk away.

The Fleet Foxes' debut album was a collection of music that was tied entirely to a very good moment in my life, and one I am incredibly grateful for experiencing. But I've never been sure if I actually would like the album were it not for those experiences.

The story, in brief, is as follows.

I went on a first date with a girl who will remain nameless in this blog. She knows who she is, and that's enough. Because really, this post isn't about her.

When we first met, I gave her a mixed CD and a bouquet of flowers. She gave me a mixed CD as well, and we laughed at the unplanned gestures syncing up. "We're so alike!" and all that jazz.

Later, we listened to her CD and sat on my couch, and that was when I first heard the Foxes' "White Winter Hymnal". I remember we were talking, and I went quiet midsentence as the song played. She told me the band name, described them as "medieval hippies" (which is as good a description as any, and it's actually pretty apt) and we sat in silence and let the music wash over us.

I don't know how many times we listened to her CD as we talked long into the night, but I do know our first kiss was during that song.

Anyways. I bought the album a few weeks later, and since then, I've associated it with the sixth months we were together. It was a long distance relationship, and much of the album just seems, for me, inextricably tied into the good side of all that. I listened to it while waiting for a delayed flight in Vancouver. It was playing during a bus ride across the province - I remember listening to "Oliver James" and being excited to see her. And it played countless times in the background as we talked over the phone well into the night.

This isn't a wistful post about the past, or anything. The relationship ended on good terms, and I'm glad it ended the way it did. The reason I bring it up is, I'm well aware that my strong feelings for the first Fleet Foxes album aren't just related to the music.

I can objectively say it's a great album, but I have to admit a good chunk of my love for it is entirely subjective and could just as easily been to some other album (Mother Mother's O My Heart, for example, or The New Pornographers' Mass Romantic. Both were albums I was listening to fairly heavily at that time, but for some reason don't really connect to that time in the same way I do with the Fleet Foxes).

So part of me cannot look at the Fleet Foxes objectively, and I've always wondered how I would feel about the follow-up without those happy times to connect to it.


The Fleet Foxes released their much anticipated follow-up album (titled Helplessness Blues) last month, and I've been busy absorbing it. There's nothing going on in my life right now that is nearly as exciting as what is going on during the last time I listened to the Foxes, and I admit I was a little hesitant that this might somehow break the spell.

I shouldn't have worried. The album is amazing, and after five or six repeated listens, I'm pretty confident in saying it's easily the equal to their first release.

It's perhaps a bit more dense, with a wider range of instruments this time around. Many of them are traditional and perhaps unusual for modern music fans - several songs reminded me of the old Conan the Barbarian soundtrack in fact, simply because the same instruments and time signatures were used.

But the Foxes use the instruments in their own unique way. Often, the electric guitars (which are definitely more in the mix this time around) would be used as time-keeping rhythm instruments, with acoustics coming in later in the song - sort of a "reverse stairway to heaven" treatment that I found myself getting very excited about.

The opening "Montezuma" has choral and pleasant qualities and a rhythmic repeated chorus, with the song slowly adding layers of acoustic and stringed instruments without ever becoming tense or violent. "Bedouin Dress", my favourite track, is almost Beatles-esque and reminds me for some reason of "Here Comes the Sun". "Helplessness Blues" has a strong celtic influence in the layered guitars before switching in the second half into melodic vocal instrospection. "Lorelai" has a great drum beat and a classical guitar arpeggio that is at once familiar and new.

I loved the band as much for the old memories as for the sound. This time around, it's just about the recording, and there's something amazing about that. Because now, I get a chance to discover the band on their own merits. And I have to say, I'm looking forward to it.

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