Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Debate Team: Did Fleet Foxes Deserve to be #1?

When I saw that Pitchfork had named Fleet Foxes self-titled debut (along with the Sun Giant EP) as their number one album of the year, my first response was "fuck that." Based on what I'd heard from the band, there seemed little to warrant such an honor. 

After listening to the album over and over for the purposes of this discussion, my mind has slightly changed. While I still don't think it deserves the honor of #1 album of the year, Fleet Foxes is far better than I gave it credit for.

What follows is a discussion between me, Daniel Krow, and Douglas Martin, who blogs at Fresh Cherries From Yakima, and records under that name and as Blurry Drones. Along with our discussion, I've attached two mp3s: one is my Afrobeat-ish remix of Fleet Foxes' "Sun Giant" (crazy how highlife sounding the guitars at the end sound when you speed them up) and Fresh Cherries from Yakima's cover of "Innocent Son."

DM: If I can be frank with all of you, I too was surprised when Fleet Foxes took the top spot in Pitchfork's Year-End Albums List.

I mean, we all know that Pitchfork is supposed to be the hub of what's hip in underground music; that's why arty fringe groups such as Animal Collective (whom I have no major qualms with), Liars (whom I adore), and Deerhunter (whom I'm starting to adore) are perpetually described as "Pitchfork Bands." With a record that pays steadfast homage to such vocal-based, easy-to-swallow 60's acts such as Beach Boys and The Zombies, with nary a peep of distorted guitar or impassioned yelping, Fleet Foxes' self-titled debut is NOT a hip record. I mean, hell, even principal songwriter Robin Pecknold wrote off the record upon its release, reportedly expecting it to flop.

Although the record was lauded by music magazines the world over, topping year-end lists everywhere, the record's modern update of Baby Boomer-era sounds was something mainstream music critics are supposed to get all hot and frothy over. The 9.0 score awarded to Fleet Foxes wasn't even the highest rating of the year (Deerhunter's Microcastle and No Age's Nouns-- the former being the obvious favorite-- were tied at 9.2), and poppy, Pacific-Northwestern folk-rock albums of its ilk such as The Grand Archives by Grand Archives and Blitzen Trapper's Furr (which, ironically enough, were both released on Sub Pop along with Fleet Foxes) did not even receive Best New Music honors. So, how did Fleet Foxes pull of the feat of being elected Pitchfork's Prom King?

This could very well be attributed from two similar albums on different sides of the Pitchfork scale released in 2006: Grizzly Bear's sophomore album, Yellow House, was instantly recognized by Pitchfork as one of the best albums of the year. When Pitchfork reviewed The Trials of Van Occupanther by Denton, TX band Midlake, it was well-received, but not favored. Both albums are distant cousins to Fleet Foxes; lush, expansive acoustic records that put a creative spin on music that time has forgotten in favor of semi-recent genres such as punk and hip-hop. The Midlake record especially foreshadows Fleet Foxes' ability to make soft-rock sound current (and even nearly revolutionary). Perhaps Pitchfork saw their lack of foresight in the instance of that Midlake album, and decided to correct matters by seeing the value of a record cut from the same cloth.

Of course, that theory is undercutting Robin Pecknold's ability as a songwriter and his bandmates' keen ear for vocal and musical arrangements. There are lots of goodies for underground music nerds, here: There's the song about watching a kid's head fall off and bloody up the snow ("White River Hymnal," also on Pitchfork's Top Songs List), the way "Sun It Rises" builds up and explodes into rainbows like choice cuts from Yellow House, the endless left-turns in song structure, and let's not forget those harmonies. The tunes on Fleet Foxes are just as much as artfully constructed as any work by a Pitchfork darling; it just so happens that there's also a keen emphasis on melody, as well as a turned back on noise and distortion.

Or maybe, just maybe, Pitchfork realizes that just because something is popular, it doesn't mean that it can't also be spellbinding. And in case you haven't noticed from all of the chatter about this album, Fleet Foxes is both popular and spellbinding.

DK: There is a lot to like about Fleet Foxes. Songs like "Your Protector," "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song," and "White River Hymnal" have classically gorgeous, madrigal-like melodies that make them sound like lost classics. Singer Robin Pecknold has a rich, slightly twanging voice that reminds you of Jim James without reminding you of how irritating that dude's voice can be. And while the band uses a liberal amount of reverb, they don't try slather it on everything like other bands desperate to sound like their favorite vinyl.

But the #1 record of the year? No way. While hailing from Seattle, Fleet Foxes are from the region I like to call Laurel Canyon Country. Laurel Canyon Country has little to do with the actual Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles, and is actually more of a chosen aesthetic. Bands from Laurel Canyon Country favor a laid-back, reverb heavy sound that borrows heavily from early Neil Young, CSN&Y, The Band, Fairport Convention, Judee Sill, etc. Except when it doesn't. Because those artists and bands were just as rooted in the blues and R & B as country and folk, but most bands from Laurel Canyon Country wouldn't touch a 12 bar blues progression with a ten foot pole.

It's easy to make the argument that artists have every right to pick and choose their influences, but let's face it, there a reason bands like Fleet Foxes or Midlake or Band of Horses don't dabble in the blues: it's uncool. Too many swarthy guys with beer guts and sweatpants wailing away on their guitars at your local blues festival have made blues genre non grata among hip music fans. But the fact remains that this grounding in all forms of American music is what connected a band like The Band to their influences.

What connects Fleet Foxes to their influences? Acoustic guitars and tight harmonies? Mandolins? A vague interest in poor Southern people?

Which brings me to "Blue Ridge Mountains." "In the quivering forest/Where the shivering dog rests/I will do it grandfather/Wilt to wood and end" Those are lines from the above mentioned song, and they, along with the song's title, seriously rub me the wrong way. How in 2008 is a band from Seattle still romanticizing one of the most poverty-stricken places in the country? Vampire Weekend are still being trashed for daring to sing songs about Africa or Lil Jon, but Fleet Foxes get a free pass to treat Appalachia like some sort of mythical country where people turn to wood and die?

I don't want to turn this into an ideological screed. I'm not asking Fleet Foxes to start a charity for the Appalachian poor or to start incorporating covers of "Crossroads" or "Hoochie-Coochie Man" into their live set. And based on their talent for song-writing, I can't argue with their placement somewhere in the top 10, but for a band as derivative and unconnected to the things they sing about as Fleet Foxes to hold the #1 spot just makes no sense.

DM: I do see where you're going with the "Laurel Canyon Country" thing, and the other Sub Pop bands I mentioned (Grand Archives, Blitzen Trapper) definitely fall under this sort of sound along with Fleet Foxes. And there is something to be said about being able to draw a straight line between an artist and their influences. However, I think it's sort of unfair to critique a band based on what they don't draw from. As a musician, I can say that I don't draw very much from blues, but that's not to say I don't like the genre; I'm very reverent of it. It's just not the style of music I chose to play. To say Fleet Foxes should incorporate more of the influences of their influences is to say that I should take cues from Kurt Cobain and sound more like The Melvins.

Another unfortunate stereotype you brought up is the fact that the blues is not "cool," which implies that most bands under the massive umbrella of "indie" have calculated lists of influences in order to exist in favor of music nerds who know what bands are "cool." This argument is never brought up when discussing acts of any other genre. No one talks about being calculated when R&B singers swipe vocal effects from T-Pain, or when Kanye West admitted to ripping off J. Dilla's drum sounds. I think it's because everyone assumes that indie musicians are such huge record nerds, and they're supposed to "know what they're doing" when it comes to distilling their influences.

The appeal of Fleet Foxes may be because they're not THAT connected to their influences. Check out the way they construct their songs in movements instead of the old verse-chorus-verse format. Connecting yourself to your influences is the quickest way to become a pastiche. Although I feel that perhaps Robin Pecknold is veiling his personal thoughts and feelings behind descriptive energy, I'll argue that even if he were disconnected to the stuff he sings, that's not so bad. I doubt Colin Meloy of The Decemberists has ever been a male prostitute, but that doesn't make "On the Bus Mall" any less touching.

Comparing Pecknold's allusions to the Blue Ridge Mountains to Vampire Weekend's spin on afro-pop is sort of like comparing apples to grapefruits; Sure, the Blue Ridge Mountains is venomously proverty-stricken, but I think the fact that people were up in arms about Vampire Weekend was the fact that Africa is full of third-world countries. Not just the Blue Ridge, but even the most desolate housing projects in America are a far cry to what is experienced in Africa; I guarantee no project-dweller or mountaineer would ever want to trade places with a child rebel solider in Sudan. Plus, one of the first lyrics in the song is, "I heard you missed your connecting flight." I guess whoever Pecknold is singing to isn't too poor to fly.

We're also missing a big point here: The fact that Fleet Foxes and the Sun Giant EP were placed as Pitchfork's #1 in tandem. The latter release is lusher and more dynamic than the full-length, with "Drops in the River" and "Mykonos" showing that the band is moving past the "Laurel Canyon Country" tag and moving towards more idiosyncratic places. Case in point: My best friend listened to the LP and declared that she didn't like the band at all. After I put on the EP on for her, she quipped, "Well, this one sounds like they have some balls."

With the supreme amount of song craftsmanship displayed on both releases, it's little surprise that Pitchfork would get behind something so fully-formed out the gate. So, number one it is.

DK: Before I clarify some of my arguments, I want to share a particularly hilarious line from Pitchfork's Joe Tangari's entry on Fleet Foxes in the 50 Best Albums of 2008: "...Fleet Foxes flows like a river, wild and free but logical, filling what needs to be filled and moving on." Does this mean in times of heavy downpour Fleet Foxes might flood? What would this mean in musical terms? I would warn anyone seeing the band live on a rainy night that they make break into spontaneous "wild and free" two hour jams, incapable of "moving on" to the next song.

There is a problem with your big point: the Sun Giant EP came out before Fleet Foxes. This would mean, based on your friend's terms, that the band have lost balls, not gained them. Personally, I don't hear a huge difference between the two. With the exception of "Drops in the River," the rest of the songs would fit just fine next to the songs on the full length.

Your point about "connecting yourselves to your influences is the quickest way to become pastiche" is made well about Fleet Foxes' stated influences, but the band often sounds like a pastiche of bands they don't credit as influences. Take My Morning Jacket's aching harmonies (and nasally vocalist) and reverb heavy production, add M. Ward's unorthodox sense of melody, and sprinkle some of Sufjan Stevens' chamber pop dust, and what do you get? Fleet Foxes.

Even if you quibble with the other two, you can't deny My Morning Jacket is the elephant in the room. Not that I believe this, but you could easily suggest that Fleet Foxes heard the weird funk/classic rock hybrid that is MMJ's Evil Urges and thought "This is our chance, guys--we can finally release this stuff and no one will think it sounds like My Morning Jacket." If Fleet Foxes had been released six months after At Dawn, you can be sure it wouldn't have been Pitchfork's #1 record of the year.

Ultimately, I think that's what gained the album Pitchfork's top spot: timing. Had it been released during a year with releases by Sufjan Stevens or M. Ward or My Morning Jacket (back when they sounded like themselves), Fleet Foxes would have been in the top 50, but with a question mark as to whether the band would be able to "grow beyond their influences." With a dearth of high profile records that sound similar to Fleet Foxes, it was easy for the band to sound more exciting than they truly are.