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Pitchfork Music Festival 2018: Saturday Preview

Back in February, a new program based in the EU called Keychange, which is focused on helping women transform the music industry, announced that they had partnered with 45 different music festivals from around the globe in a pledge to help create fully gender balanced lineups by 2020. Considering how lopsided the current festival landscape is, with major festival lineups like Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza averaging somewhere around 20% female, committing to a 50/50 split will certainly take some work. Unfortunately most large festivals haven’t joined Keychange’s pledge, so the numbers will likely remain skewed for the foreseeable future. The folks behind the Pitchfork Music Festival also didn’t agree to have a gender balanced lineup by 2020. Instead, they’ve done it by 2018. Pitchfork is only one of two festivals (the other is Panorama) to do it this year, and while there’s been very little attention given to this fact, it’s absolutely worth noting and celebrating. Will they choose to continue booking lineups this way in the future? I guess we’ll find out in 2019 and beyond. For now though, it’s heartening to know that Pitchfork is taking the lead in helping to create a more progressive and hospitable festival experience for persons of all genders and types. There’s a whole lot of talented women and men set to perform at Pitchfork on Saturday, and if you’re interested in learning more about them and who you should make an effort to see, read on below.

Before we get started:
Click here for a playlist of the entire Pitchfork Music Festival 2018 lineup
Click here for the Friday Preview Guide
Click here to buy tickets to the 2018 Pitchfork Music Festival
Check back tomorrow for the Sunday preview guide, plus coverage of the festival all weekend long!

Snapshot Review: Father John Misty – Fear Fun [Sub Pop/Bella Union]

photo credit: Maximilla Lukacs

“Look out Hollywood, here I come,” Joshua Tillman sings on “Funtimes in Babylon,” the opening track to his record Fear Fun, and his first under the moniker of Father John Misty. It’s a line that feels very appropriate given the situation that Tillman has put himself in. As the drummer and backup vocalist for Fleet Foxes, he played an important role in helping to shape the band’s backwoods folk sound and glorious harmonies that have earned them rave after rave review. Fleet Foxes have become increasingly popular over the last few years and pair of records, to the point where they’d come awfully close to headlining a major music festival. They certainly fared well last summer, headlining the smaller and more boutique setting that is the Pitchfork Music Festival. One wonders why anyone would voluntarily leave a band just as success was genuinely finding them. Yet that’s the path Tillman has chosen for himself. He had a reasonably established solo career under his given name of J. Tillman even before joining Fleet Foxes, and his records like Vacilando Territory Blues, Year in the Kingdom and Singing Air began to earn some real attention as a direct result of his other success. Presumably wanting to explore that further and escape the back of the stage drum kit, he announced last year he was leaving the band to focus full time on his own music. He cut a deal with Sub Pop and changed his performing name to Father John Misty.

With a new label and new name he’s also shifted his style as well on the new record Fear Fun. The material he released as J. Tillman was singer-songwriter folk with alt-country leanings. He was in a class with Nick Drake, Will Oldham, Gram Parsons and Damien Jurado. A fair amount of those similarities are retained on this new record, but Tillman has expanded his sonic palette a bit and moved his focus from the dreary rains of Seattle into the sunny disposition of Los Angeles. Much of the album was written after a bout of depression and writer’s block, which he attempted to shake off by jumping in his car and driving down the West coast with a huge bag of mushrooms and no set destination. He began writing a novel (the likely inspiration for the song “I’m Writing a Novel”), and suddenly his songwriter instincts kicked back in. Upon settling into what he describes as a spider infested tree house in Laurel Canyon, Tillman felt like he’d finally found his true voice. That voice was different from anything he’d done before; the goal was to destroy the artifice of fiction in his music and approach his songs with a candor and honesty so many others actively avoid. Not only is it refreshing to hear, it’s also pretty funny. “Pour me another drink/and punch me in the face/You can call me Nancy,” Tillman sings at the start of “Nancy From Now On”. That’s not meant to be taken seriously, as is much of “I’m Writing a Novel”, where Tillman has a bad drug trip: “I ran down the road/pants down to my knees/screaming please come help me that Canadian shaman gave a little too much to me”. It’s not all fun and amusement though. Single “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” is a darkly themed Neil Young-ian dirge about a death in the family, that features Tillman pleading, “Someone’s gotta help me dig.” On “Now I’m Learning to Love the War”, he makes the connection between fighting in the Middle East and the creation of music. “Try not to think about/the truly staggering amount/of oil that it takes to make a record,” he points out in something of a depressing fashion.

As straightforward as Fear Fun can be lyrically, its overall execution winds up being a little more complex. Tracks like “Funtimes in Babylon”, “O I Long to Feel Your Arms Around Me” and “Everyman Needs a Companion” are gorgeous folk numbers with echo-laden harmonies that almost instantly recall Fleet Foxes. Tillman apparently wanted to help create a bridge between fan bases, and this record is pretty successful at doing just that. Yet it’s also adventurous in its eclecticism. Pedal steel and Americana take center stage on “Misty’s Nightmares 1 & 2” and “Well, You Can Do It Without Me”, while “Tee Pees 1-12” breaks out the fiddles and hand claps for a good ol’ fashioned hoedown. Along the way classic records from Harry Nilsson and Waylon Jennings tend to come to mind, though never at the same time. The variety serves the album well, particularly because all the sounds are rooted in the same basic elements and ideas. Turns out that after seven records as J. Tillman and two in Fleet Foxes, Father John Misty arrives fully formed and with a set of songs that are difficult to resist singing or humming along to the more time you spend with them. With a new name, home, label, record and sound, Tillman finally feels ready for the spotlight. Hollywood, he has arrived.

Father John Misty – Nancy From Now On
Father John Misty – Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings

Buy Fear Fun from Amazon

Stream the entire album after the jump!

Snapshot Review: Bowerbirds – The Clearing [Dead Oceans]

Those that have caught onto Bowerbirds in the last few years, whether it was through their 2007 debut album Hymns for a Dark Horse or its 2009 follow-up Upper Air, probably have a pretty good grasp on what the band is all about. The word “rustic” gets thrown around a lot when talking about a band like this, presumably because they’ve got a down home charm that transcends all the way into their lyrics. So you get a lot of acoustic guitars and graceful pianos, maybe some violins and glockenspiel for good measure. Imagine a less inventive version of Fleet Foxes without more muted vocal harmonies, and Bowerbirds is a band that should come to mind. Perhaps it’s better to simply say they’re peers with Iron & Wine and Midlake in their pastoralism. Navigating an urban jungle while listening to their songs never feels quite as good as it does when it soundtracks your trip into the woods or through an open field. That was the case with the band before, and with their third long player The Clearing it’s essentially more of the same. The changes made to their sound are largely cosmetic, with the instruments a little less buzzy and the vocals a little more up-front in the mix. Bowerbirds have also grown a little in their compositional abilities. That’s clear from the opening track “Tuck the Darkness In”, starting with just an acoustic guitar and vibraphone but slowly building and adding more instruments until it explodes in a cacophony of noise for the final 90 seconds. Following that up is “In the Yard”, which invites a whole other collection of instruments into the fold paired next to Beth Tacular’s sweet vocal, also essentially a paradox to Philip Moore’s from the track before. This pair of songs is evidence of growth not because of how far apart they are sonically, but rather how close. They compliment one another to help form a fully functional portrait of the band. It’s a shame that can’t be said of every track on The Clearing, but there are definitely more winners than losers thanks to moments like “Stitch the Hem”, “Hush” and “Sweet Moment”. Most follow the same slow burn beauty pattern established at the very beginning, though it’s consistently fascinating to keep track of the many instrumental layers that are placed atop one another. Sometimes it doesn’t work, as is the case with “This Year” and “Overcome With Light”, both of which are burdened with the curse of being too conventional for their own good. Lyrically speaking the band continues on the path of their prior albums, using nature imagery as metaphors for our personal lives. Great as it all sounds when it comes together, so much of The Clearing feels like a musical safety net. There’s so much beauty in these songs, yet they often feel like things we’ve heard before in their catalogue and the catalogues of similar bands. Bowerbirds may have grown some on this record, but they’ve only moved a foot when a yard was needed.

Bowerbirds – In the Yard
Bowerbirds – Tuck the Darkness In

Buy The Clearing from Amazon

Pitchfork Music Festival 2011: Day 2 Recap

As the weekend wears onward, I only wind up more and more tired at the end of each respective day. In other words, if I was super tired when doing last night’s Day 1 recap, today is a whole other level of pain. Still, I shall push past the sleep demons to provide you with a play-by-play of all the action I absorbed on Day 2 of the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival.

Normally I’m a full set kind of person, as I am also a full album kind of person. It’s the sort of feeling like once you start something you need to see it through to a full conclusion. Well today I went a little schizophrenic and watched a lot of half sets. Too many great bands to see and too little time will do that to you. But to start the day, I strolled in past the gates and caught Julianna Barwick in the earliest stages of her set. Yes, Chrissy Murderbot was across the park on the smaller stage, but you could hear his beats pumping all the way where Barwick was playing. Not her fault, though the fact that her songs aren’t the loudest, most upbeat things in the world didn’t help matters. I immediately started to sweat in the 80+ degree temperatures, and a few times during Barwick’s set I felt like the sun had purposely increased in intensity. But in spite of the sweltering heat and noise interruptions, Barwick put on a great set. It likely would have been much better off in a small, dark venue than at this festival, but such is life. The songs were absolutely gorgeous as she worked at looping her vocals over and over and over again until there were these haunting harmonies that just spoke to you.

Woods was next up on the list of bands to see, but I didn’t plan on sticking around for long. That was partly because word on the street was that they were very boring live, and also Sun Airway seemed like they could be good. The first thing I noticed about Woods was that prior to starting their set they spread incense everywhere on stage. Then one of the guys in the band used a pair of headphones as a microphone, with one earpiece on his mouth and the other wrapping around to the back of his neck. Keep in mind this was NOT the singer Jeremy Earl, but rather “tape effects technician” G. Lucas Crane. The best part is that in the title “tape effects” they mean cassette tapes. With all this going on, it’d seem maybe Woods wasn’t a boring band live after all. But once the novelty and strangeness wore off, everything else about the band seemed old hat. Five tracks into their set, I skipped out.

Sun Airway was a band I had high hopes for. They’ve only got one record out, but it’s a good one and there was something about it that felt like they were hungry to succeed on every possible level. Unfortunately, that did not turn out to be the case, as the first part of their set was beleaguered with bouts of normalcy. They were bringing a little more energy to the stage than their cross-park time slot rivals Woods were, but not a whole lot more. At least they seemed like they wanted to be there. Being such a young band, maybe a couple years’ worth of touring experience will help turn their somewhat pedestrian set into something that grabs your attention and refuses to let go.

One of the more amusing moments of the festival came when Cold Cave began their set and emerged on stage wearing thick black leather jackets, among other things. They must have been hotter than hell in those outfits, given the extreme temperatures outside at that hour. The interesting thing is, Cold Cave absolutely went all-out to put on a lively and entertaining show. The trio danced, shimmied, shook, and every other crazy move while their synth-pop melodies soared through the air as if they were so big no room could fully contain them. The bass shooting out of the speakers was nothing less than intense to the point where it put all of your internal organs on vibrate mode. It was heartening to see a band truly give 110%, in particular as a pseudo-response to the general malaise of the sets that came before it on Saturday.

Not willing to be outdone, the crowd was clearly primed for No Age. After a few minutes of technical issues, the mosh pit started almost immediately when they started to play. Things got super intense super fast, and security was just a tiny bit overwhelmed trying to keep it all contained. Water started to get passed around at a fast and furious rate, and people started to open the bottles and whip that water over the crowd to try and keep everything cool. Meanwhile, Randy Randall was and Dean Spunt were laying it all out there, giving back to the crowd what the crowd was giving it. After chatting with a security guard later in the day, he told me that while things got wild during that No Age set, injuries were minimal and everyone took care of one another. That is what this festival is all about, having a good time while showing some love for your neighbor. I left No Age’s set mid-way through to go see Wild Nothing, but came back before the end. Spunt had abandoned his drum set and was climbing the barricade in front of the stage. Best set of the day? Quite possibly.

In terms of going to see Wild Nothing, my hopes were not that high. Their album “Gemini” is great, and most assuredly it’d translate well to a live show, but after two bands in a row that were seriously kicking ass, I didn’t think they could muster up that same sort of energy. Turns out I was right, though Wild Nothing’s set was in no way poor in quality. Their vibe was just totally different, in a more laid back and relaxed sense. If you were hanging out in the shade over there with a light breeze blowing through, I’m sure it made for a nice time. Personally, I was still on an energy high and after a handful of songs had the strong urge to go back over to No Age, which I eventually did. Still, Wild Nothing, if the situation were different, I’d absolutely recommend their live show.

Then came Gang Gang Dance, a band that I like but am still struggling to fully comprehend. Much like Woods earlier in the day, GGD had a guy come out and spread incense all over the stage. Unlike Woods though, that guy was not a member of the band, outside of the fact that he stayed on stage the entire time, dancing around with a flag and more incense. If the band feels like they need a full time incense guy, well, then that’s their preference. When budget constraints hit you though, I’d think the incense guy is the first one to get fired. Anyways, outside of the crazy incense, the band put on a very interesting set. It was less energetic than I anticipated, but more technically sound. Lizzi Bougatsos played her frontwoman role to a T, and surrounded herself with percussion instruments of every sort. Whenever she wasn’t wailing into a microphone, which was often, she was banging on something or teasing some chimes. Percussion is an essential part of Gang Gang Dance’s live show, and I’m pretty sure every band member had drum sticks and was beating on something at one point or another. Not that I expected them to be bad, but I’d call the set surprisingly good. I was initially disappointed at what it appeared to be, and then once I had accepted what it was, learned to love it.

After really wanting to check out OFF! but finding myself unable to break away from Gang Gang Dance, I held up and just went straight to Destroyer. Dan Bejar has got plenty of albums to his name under that moniker, and most of them, while great, are not what’d best be described as “energetic”. I was expecting with the heat and late afternoon sun to just be bored out of my mind with his set. OFF! was likely giving a scathing, old school punk rock set, and here was Bejar and his band of saxophone and horn players ready to break out most of the soft rock stylings on his most recent effort “Kaputt”. Upon opening with the single “Chinatown” though, things seemed perfectly okay. There was something infinitely engaging about the performance, an almost indefinable quality to it that charmed in spite of its relatively subdued nature. Maybe it was the passion with which the band played. Maybe it was Bejar’s odd performance style of wandering and singing with his eyes closed. Whatever it was, there was magic involved. It only would have been better had I found a shady spot to sit down and just listen.

As it stood though, I was overly excited to check out The Radio Dept., so yet again I abandoned another artist mid-set. Having never seen The Radio Dept. live before but desperately wanting to, this was my big chance and I was not prepared to waste it. Imagine my shock then at finding out the trio was not very good live. Maybe it was the outdoor festival setting, or maybe they’re just plain inexperienced (prior to the last year or so, they had barely played any shows despite releasing 3 full lengths). The way I saw it was that their set lacked the showbiz word known only as pizzazz. It’s the indefinable quality that makes somebody engaging. Those three guys looked awkward on stage, like putting the spotlight on the shyest guys in a room. The keyboards didn’t bounce with any sort of vigor, the guitars lacked ferocity. The song “Keen On Boys”, perhaps my favorite Radio Dept. song ever, limped along, lacking any real muscle. The volume sounded like it was turned down to its lowest level too, and I almost wanted to stand at the back of the stage area to see if I could still hear the band. All this translates to The Radio Dept. sucking. My most anticipated set of the day, and it turned out to be one of the worst of the entire weekend thus far. Too bad, because I still really like the band. Maybe next time in a small, dark club it’ll be much better.

The Dismemberment Plan was next up, and having seen them already once earlier this year, I was intrigued to see what they’d do in front of a festival crowd. Turns out they’re just as, if not more exciting than ever before. They pumped through their classics like a band fresh off their first album and eager to please. They also looked like they were having a blast doing it. The huge smile on Travis Morrison’s face said it all. Naturally, the stage banter was overly witty as well, even at one point having Morrison attempt to do a verse of “You Are Invited” in the same heavy Cuban accent as Al Pacino in “Scarface”. Hilarious? You’d best believe it, even if much of the crowd had puzzled looks on their faces. Reports say that The D Plan also covered Robyn’s “Dancehall Queen”, but I skipped out for a short bit to go see some Twin Shadow. Still, I loved and continue to love The Dismemberment Plan. Their set was one of the top highlights of Saturday for me.

Early on in Twin Shadow‘s set, frontman George Lewis told the crowd that he was amused by his band’s placement in the day, playing opposite “my favorite band from when I was 18 years old”. The D Plan were still playing one hell of a show, but Twin Shadow seemed to both know that and want to equal or best it. The crowd was dancing up a storm, Lewis was pulling all sorts of rock star moves with his guitar in hand, and fun naturally came along with that. The high degree of energy served the whole band well, and the songs from “Forget”, along with a couple new ones sounded nothing short of great. It was technically unfair to put Twin Shadow up against the Dismemberment Plan, because that made it impossible to see two super great full sets. I feel privileged to have caught a majority of both bands.

I hung out at the smaller Blue stage for a bit to wait on Zola Jesus because DJ Shadow is NOT my thing. I wasn’t anticipating sticking around longer than a few songs for Zola Jesus though, lest I waste too much time and wind up in a super bad spot for the evening’s headliner Fleet Foxes. So the few songs I saw Zola and her band perform were solid. Great doesn’t quite define it, but very good and interesting probably do it justice. Zola’s a strong live performer, wearing a lovely ruffled dress sans shoes and dancing around from end to end of the stage. She played a couple new tunes in the time I was there, and they sound like a good continuation of what she’s accomplished on her last two efforts. I’m genuinely excited to hear her upcoming album now. The only fault I really found with her live set was that I’m not a huge fan of her music. As I’ve already stated, seeing her live made me have a greater appreciation for her records, but I didn’t have much of an appreciation in the first place. I was there because I had nothing better to do, and it turned into something more worthwhile. I’m quite happy it worked out that way, and if you saw her set, I hope you walked away liking Zola Jesus more too.

Finally it was Fleet Foxes time. The first thing I noticed when they came out on stage was how the entire band (save for the drummer) was lined up in a straight line across the stage. Yet instead of setting up on the front of the stage like every single other band, they only occupied the back half of the stage. It was like they were trying to distance themselves from the crowd. Don’t ask me why they chose to do it that way. As you may or may not be aware, I’ve said some not-so-nice things about the fact that Fleet Foxes were headlining a night of this festival, in particular because I felt like they were not yet worthy of headliner status. Two albums and 3 years shouldn’t earn you such privileges, even if those two albums were both completely amazing. What still consistently amazes is how they’re able to pull off all those dense harmonies in a live setting. It’s incredible to watch and to hear, even as the guys do nothing but stand in the same place the entire set. They rolled through their requisite great songs, from “Mykonos” to “Grown Ocean” and “White Winter Hymnal”, all the way past the “Blue Ridge Mountains” before finally ending with “Helplessness Blues”. I’d call the set triumphant if only it were just a little more engaging. As it stood, everything was very nice and pleasant, but the band could use just a little more spark in their performance in order to fully justify their headliner status. After a very long day in the hot sun, it was extremely nice to kind of relax and let Fleet Foxes take you away. THAT was the real benefit of their night closing set.

Okay, that wraps up a lengthy Day 2. Day 3 kicks off in another few hours, so if you’re headed out there, best of luck to you. Hot temperatures await, but so does fun. Stay hydrated. I’ll have my recap of Day 3, and one final full festival wrap-up for you once this whole thing draws to a close.

Album Review: Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues [Sub Pop]

There’s something both incredible and daunting about crafting a near perfect debut record, to the point where it gets named by everyone and their mother to be the best thing released that year. Fleet Foxes pulled off such an achievement, as their self-titled first album won over millions of hearts, minds and ears just a few years ago in 2008. The sun-streamed pastoral folk with rich vocal harmonies made for some glorious throwback to the heydays of Fairport Convention, The Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The phrase “with great power comes great responsibility” absolutely applies in this case, with the band having to deal with the pressures of immediate success and how to craft a follow-up album that might be equal to or greater than what came before it. Making the entire process that much more painstaking was a serious battle with writer’s block that frontman Robin Pecknold encountered, not to mention a large number of songs that wound up in the trash after the band considered them unsatisfactory. So it’s been a tough road, but Fleet Foxes have moved past it, incorporating their frustration and depression into a darker sophmore effort with a title that says it all, “Helplessness Blues”.

Right from the opening verse of first track “Montezuma”, there’s a noticeable difference in what Fleet Foxes are doing compared to their last record. “Sun It Rises” was the introduction to the self-titled album, and it featured warm acoustic strings and a pace that was just shy of galloping. It very much exuded the ethos of the title and lyrics, that of a warm ball of light sliding up from below the horizon. By contrast, “Montezuma” has a faster plucked guitar but deliberately slow lyrics that play to a lower register rather than a higher one. Robin Pecknold immediately stands out front as his vocals are not enveloped in harmonies as he begins by questioning his place in life. “So now i am older/than my mother and father/when they had their daughter/Now what does that say about me?” he ponders moments before some backing harmonies step in to provide support and a bit more beauty amid the percussion-free fragility. Elsewhere in the song Pecknold ponders his own mortality, questioning if upon his placement in a coffin, “I wonder if I’ll see/any faces above me/or just cracks in the ceiling”. About mid-way through, a dam busts open and a shimmering keyboard emerges along with some more forceful harmonies to bring some added warmth to a relatively cold and troubled track. Yet despite having these nagging questions and feelings, the way Pecknold sings it projects a certain confident weariness, as if to say he hasn’t been living his life right but knows just how to get on the right path.

The way that “Bedouin Dress” develops makes for one of the more fascinating parts on the first half of the record. In what becomes a theme for much of “Helplessness Blues”, Pecknold continues to remain out in front of everything else with a solo vocal, with only touches of background harmonies here and there. There’s a little bit of a violin spread out across the track, helping to give it just a touch of alt-country vibe, but the overall structure truly takes the cake. The song has no official chorus, just a few different phrases that are repeated at various points with little to no discrimination. As such, it makes the track hard to pin down and equally unmemorable. Just because there’s no solid hook or make for easy recall doesn’t mean it’s any less great though, and the more defiant, experimental nature of the song gives it most of the credit it would have to earn elsewhere. In other words, it’s given a lot more wiggle room because it’s pushing boundaries and succeeding. Similarly, “Sim Sala Bim” somewhat follows the path of a story, with Pecknold on a diatribe as he questions why he’s in a relationship. “What makes me love you despite the reservations?/What do I see in your eyes/besides my reflection hanging high?” he selfishly wonders, also thinking maybe she put a spell on him. After two minutes of such precious thoughts though, the doors blow open and the final minute of the song is a full-on hard acoustic guitar strum, suddenly whipping the song into a frenzy it hadn’t even hinted at beforehand. It’s gorgeous and a rush and one of the things Fleet Foxes do best as learned from their debut album. The first third of the record continues to play with differing sounds and textures courtesy of “Battery Kinzie”, as the band places their guitars in the background in favor of pounding piano and drums. Unlike a number of tracks on the album that explore the boundaries of space and occasionally turn into extended jam sessions, “Battery Kinzie” wraps up in under 3 minutes and quite succintly after the second time through the chorus. Considering the pace and melody are lovely, it’s one of the few moments on the album you’re left wondering if they could have done more.

The two longest tracks on “Helplessness Blues” are actually ones that function more as separate pieces molded into singular entities. Clocking in at nearly 6 minutes, “The Plains/Bitter Dancer” begins with a bit of a psychedelic trip. Voices moan, breaking into “oohs” and “aahs” that pile on top of one another, both harmonizing and overlapping at the same time. An acoustic guitar and drums attempt to hold down some sort of order but to no avail, until all of that simply drifts away 2 minutes in to make room for the harmony rich acoustics of the second part of the track, complete with piano and flute accompaniment. The final 90 seconds of the song really shift into an entirely different gear as the drums become more insistent and crack the building tension wide open to a more majestic viewpoint. Towards the end of the record, “The Shrine/An Argument” is an 8 minute breakup saga that is the record’s Piece de Resistance. The most immediately noticeable thing about the track is that it features Pecknold stretching his voice to levels strained with heartbreak that feel completely geniune. Using the long-standing tradition of making wishes by throwing pennies into a fountain, Pecknold waxes poetic on a love that’s since vanished. “I’m not one to ever pray for mercy/or to wish on pennies in the fountain or the shrine/but that day/you know I left my money and I thought of you/only all that copper glowing fine/and I wonder what became of you”, he sings just before transitioning into the second part of the track, which may be a flashback to where their relationship disintigrated. “In the doorway holding every letter that i wrote/in the driveway pulling away putting on your coat/in the ocean washing off my name from your throat”, he mourns, and as the waves begin to draw closer and closer to him, he lays down in the sand in the hopes that he’ll be taken away “like pollen on the breeze”. The final two minutes of the track are resigned to a rather turbulent instrumental, the most troubling and experimental moment on the entire record. Trumpets and saxophones and woodwinds and a host of other instruments tumble over one another in a very squeaky and off-key fashion, like a drunkard with little to no experience trying to play his favorite song. As to the actual feelings it invokes, all the dischordant noise can be attributed to the sonic equivalent of crashing waves slamming down over and over on top of that grief stricken body laying on the beach quietly wishing for all that pain to just wash away. It’s a mighty powerful moment worthy of close attention and careful analysis. And despite the very dark nature of the song, it might just be the smartest written and composed Fleet Foxes track to date.

While “The Shrine/An Argument” may be the true standout track on “Helplessness Blues”, the title track best sums up the many different aspects of the band’s sound at work across the entire record. It’s fitting that the title track is also the first single given its energy and harmony-rich vocals. The storyline is a relatively classic one too, retreating back to much of the nature-inspired imagery of the band’s debut in the second half of the song, as Pecknold sings, “If I had an orchard I’d work til I’m sore”. But really the point is wishing to return to a life of simplicity, where the pressure to be something greater than yourself and achieve fame and fortune can be crippling. Though sadness pervades the lyrics of “Lorelai”, the rather straightforward and appealingly sunny melody suggests otherwise. Unlike most of the other songs on this record that are rather tough nuts to crack, it’s one of the few that seems to have potential as a future single. The other is closing track “Grown Ocean”, which emerges like a phoenix out of the semingly broken ashes much of the rest of the record seems to espouse. Not only does it have energy, but it’s positive outlook is a breath of fresh air after the more somber preceeding cuts. In some ways, the track almost feels tacked on to the end, particularly given the flow of the record and the stoic Gram Parsons-esque Pecknold solo acoustic number “Blue Spotted Tail” that meekly exists just before it. Yet that final release is required, lest you drown amidst the choppy waves of the blues.

In spite of how well it’s put together, “Helplessness Blues” is not an easy record to like. Time, patience and a hefty dose of empathy are required to fully grasp exactly what’s going on here, and if you’re not willing to give this album all that then you might find yourself turned off by it. Hooks and memorable choruses are hard to come by, as is energy at certain points, and most of the lyrics will take you to a dark place. The overall melodies remain strong however, as do those vocal harmonies despite being in shorter supply as Pecknold takes the reins just a little bit more than last time. The progression though is highly impressive. Instrumentally the band has expanded their core by leaps and bounds, playing a number of things barely heard on records today such as a Marxophone, Tibetan singing bowls and a touch of timpani. Despite this expansive set of instruments, the up-front elements in any track are always the acoustic guitar or piano with everything else buried in the deep crevasses of the background. Pecknold has also grown significantly as a songwriter, bringing sharper imagery to his words while also peppering them with strong emotional ties. Rather than write a record about the expanse of nature, with its “Blue Ridge Mountains”, “Meadowlarks” and “Ragged Wood”, he’s taking a look inward at his own insecurities and troubles. From worries about living the kind of life he desires or was told to desire through the shattered relationships that have left him beaten and bruised, it’s a different, more insular approach and one that works quite well. Between that and his dominant singing voice though, you’ve got to wonder exactly how much influence the other guys in the band had with the final product. It’s enough to make you think that a Robin Pecknold solo record could be coming down the pipe sooner rather than later. For the time being though, “Helplessness Blues” is once again another notch in the Fleet Foxes cap, pushing the band to different but equally (if not more) compelling places than their debut. With a record as good as this, the band proves they’re neither helpless, nor do they have a strong reason to be singing the blues.

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

Buy “Helplessness Blues” from Amazon

Album Review: Mountain Man – Made the Harbor [Bella Union/Partisan]

Some albums are just best listened to alone. Find yourself a quiet environment, be it a bedroom or an uncrowded park, and strap on the ‘ol headphones while you mentally “check out” for awhile to enjoy the music. If you choose the right record for the situation, the results can be transcendent and revealing. On the flip side of that coin, you can completely ruin an album if you listen to it in the wrong context. Such is the case with the new album from the East Coast trio of ladies known as Mountain Man. Their second album (the first with halfway decent distribution) is titled “Made the Harbor”, and it demands a silent room and a calm demeanor to be fully appreciated.

At first glance, Mountain Man has the sound of a female version of Fleet Foxes. They’re all folk melodies and intense, 3-part harmonies. When Amelia Randall Meath, Molly Erin Sarle and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig put their voices together, beauty happens of the highest order. They’re so confident in that, many of the songs on “Made the Harbor” are performed completely a capella. When there are instruments, an acoustic guitar or two is about all you’re going to get, but that’s really all you need. It’s rather exciting to have songs so sparsely composed yet sounding so rich and refined. More than anything else, the album feels like a throwback to the all-girl groups of the 1950’s, when times were far different and more innocent than they are today. The lyrics are also pretty old fashioned as well, talking about animals, nature and young maidens. Helping to complete that portrait is the fact that the album was recorded at an abandoned ice cream parlor from the early 20th century. And even smarter was the move to produce it completely roughshod, leaving in all the little imperfections that come with avoiding a traditional studio. So if you listen carefully you’ll hear the occasional shuffle of feet or background noise. It’s relentlessly charming and austere, which is part of what makes it so unique and worthwhile in today’s digital age.

Perhaps the best thing about “Made the Harbor” is how timeless it is. The album could just as easily have been a “lost recording” from the past just recently discovered as much as it is something that was made yesterday. These girls know how to write a compelling folk song that can stick with you if you let it. Of course that partly requires the ability to sit still and give this record your attention and patience. This isn’t an album for everybody, and it runs into the occasional problem of a song feeling only half finished, but for those who can fully appreciate the sweet siren call of Mountain Man, it’s the sort of delight that only comes around once in a blue moon.

Mountain Man – Soft Skin

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