Fleet Foxes became a known entity to me, like to most people, around the time that their chamber-pastoral single White Winter Hymnal was becoming a strange, bonafide hit circa 2008. At the time they were billed as a kind of highly-cultured, CSNY-worshiping, alternative-rockers, the soundtrack to a farm market assault. But, that’s not who they were.
On closer listen, they sounded to me more like Brian Wilson’s mid-70’s attempt at guiding the Beach Boys back to the Pet Sounds palate they had rejected in the first place. Just like Wilson’s Holland, Fleet Foxes sound splendid, but tense, like heaven drawn out in black and white pencil with a shaky hand.
The unexpected, long-lasting appeal of Fleet Foxes gave rise to numerous copy-cats. There’s plenty of music that sounds like Fleet Foxes. And, while singer Robin Pecknold’s songwriting is not something easily replicated, contemporary folkies have rode a liter version of the songs all the way to the bank. Groups like folk-hipsters the Lumineers or Mumford and Sons, have parleyed the old-timely sound and image into stadium-folk tours, pop music for the age of endless commercials. Even former Foxes drummer, Josh Tillerman (aka Father John Misty) has parodied the attempt to cash-in writing his own soundtrack to a green car advert .
Fleet Foxes’ members return from self-imposed exile
This is where Fleet Foxes find themselves on their new, 2020 release Shore, and that was my relationship with the band’s music. I have often approached their work with enthusiasm, and not once have I left a listening experience not feeling I’ve encountered something otherworldly. (With that said, I’ve never reveled in their music, nor been able to relax while around it.) Many listeners have arguably felt the same, considering Shore‘s almost instant success.
The familiar qualities of the band are all found here. However, this time around, when assembled, they end up sounding less mystifying. Rather, their sound is elegant. Similarly the mood of the record is not as somber as Helplessness Blues, a record seemingly infused with all the misery of the world. Nor is it as oblique as Crack-up, their last studio outing.
Fleet Foxes songs on new album Shore
Wading in waist high-water sounds childish and builds up like a sobered-up descendant of Bob Dylan’s All the tired horses. Sunblind finds Robin Pecknold trading familiarly gorgeous melodies, this time delivered as a summer-holiday kind of relief.
Can I believe you is one of the record’s standout tracks, a sun-kissed, hippie-gospel number. Here’s one of the few places where the two-old Fleet Foxes secret ingredients, emotional desolation and grandiose harmony layering, truly enter the picture.
Jara, A long way past the past, Maestranza and Featherweight are, unmistakably, the work produced by the same author that once made thousand of folkies so desperately want to copy his music. Only that this time, there’s a world-traveled, accepting air about the writing.
For a week or two sounds like the bootleg of a religious ceremony, but Young man’s game is nearly a pop song, a transcendence that would have seemed out of place any other of the Fleet Foxes’ albums. But, then, sharply, I’m not my season is the kind of ego-drenched acoustic-spiritual that is hard to imagine anyone else writing, or even covering, for that matter.
Hiding the deep cuts at the tail-end of Shore
Freed from the pressure of appearing to be one of pop-music’s least content stars, Fleet Foxes use the remainder of the album to shift to a familiar serene melancholy. There’s even a hint of baroque pop to Cradling Mother, Cradling Women.
And, finally, like the folk-pop well-wishes of the the previous 14 songs meant nothing, Fleet Foxes deliver Shore. It’s a delicate piano ballad, that could have been written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, were they collectively meditating by the sea side after the hardest year in both men’s lives.
Fleet Foxes’ new album Shore does not necessarily break new ground, nor does it stagnate in repeating old tricks. It proves what their many imitators knew all along. While listening to this group is both exhilarating and cheerless, nobody else writes songs like Robin Pecknold. In a world where much of modern music has been reduced to predictive algorithms and clone-production, Fleet Foxes are unlike anyone else.