Fleet Foxes stand out amid latest indie-rock wave
By Mark Guarino
Attention, Lincoln Park Zoo: Instead of booking frat rock has-beens for your summer concert series, perhaps it’s time to consider Grizzly Bear, Deerhoof, Minus the Bear, Wolf Parade and others in the current pantheon of indie rock bands most likely to be named after species shot from helicopters in Sarah Palin’s Alaska.
And make sure the headliner is Fleet Foxes, a Seattle quintet with enviable hipster pedigree (a near-perfect rating on Pitchfork Media, a premier slot at its festival last summer) and one of this year’s rising stars. At Metro Sunday before a capacity crowd, the band didn’t perform with insider status: on the contrary, its golden-hued music felt universal.
Fleet Foxes released its self-titled debut last spring on Sub Pop, the 20-year Seattle label that is enjoying a state of renewal. The label made its name in the early 1990s for being on the front line of grunge, having signed Nirvana, Mudhoney and others. However, unlike many labels that struggle to rediscover their purpose once the glory years have dimmed, Sub Pop has invested in the current musical renaissance happening in the Northwest. Less punk and at lower volume, bands like Band of Horses, Grand Archives, songwriter Sera Cahoone and new signings Vetiver and Daniel Martin Moore all connect with traditional American styles in ways that sounds personal, not precious.
Fleet Foxes is especially unique. Beginning and sometimes ending with milky harmonies, often sung a cappella and in three or four parts, the band captured the spiritual highs of the Beach Boys, but also the dreamy witness bearing associated with the short-lived, but highly revered cult band Neutral Milk Hotel. Less psychedelic and connected more to sacred harp singing, the vocals delivered entire lyrics, but sometimes spiritual bliss came out of wordless refrains.
Attached to pop melodies, and with a colossal backbeat borrowed from old Motown records, the songs were easy to sing along with, but also to get lost inside. Despite being together just briefly, the band displayed meticulous craft. Songs were engineered for their fine layers – a lead guitar suddenly sawed with a string bow, shakers and tambourines, a drummer who puts down his sticks to bellow counter vocals to the front line of singers.
Piecing these together, songs like “Sun Giant” or “Mykonos” became pop variations of a classical suite, but that didn’t mean they were soft. The band played with heft and dynamics. The rumble beats of “Silver City,” a new song, suggested that a future where songs will only get bigger.
Fleet Foxes songs aim to sound like fables, where birth and death inevitably clash. But once songs were finished, leader Robin Pecknold got sheepish, holding conversations directly with audience members, describing the contradictions of a vegan lifestyle and musing out loud about Barack Obama’s record in the Illinois Senate (“he got good stuff for corn, right?”).
Pecknold’s voice, high and sweet but also filled with anxiety, stunned, particularly on the songs he sang alone. On “Oliver James,” he gave the perspective of a mother who tells her son to retrieve his dead brother’s body from the river. “Oliver James/washed in the rain/no longer,” he sang, nailing the last phrase to the rafters.