Album Review: Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up

When I got my first car, Fleet Foxes and Helplessness Blues were two of the very first albums I bought, partly a side effect of my frantic attempts to absolve myself from succumbing to the toxic abyss of pre-teen pop music that still had a hold on me judging from my music library, but mostly because I had become infatuated with the music itself. I remember I wanted something more, something better from music at that time, and that I specifically wanted physical copies to put in my car’s driver’s side pocket even though during that time it seemed to me as if everyone was still drunk on digital downloads, still in the honeymoon era of marrying technology with, considering the state of affairs today, no divorce in sight. I listened to Robin Pecknold’s honeyed, passionate vocals and his guitar’s melancholic plucks mixed with the feeling of warmth due to the sunshine filtering through the windshield and the potent smell of my old volvo’s musty seats, and soon I began to equate Fleet Foxes with the ideas of freedom and independence, both of which I had to briefly set aside the moment I unbuckled my seatbelt and stepped onto the pavement. Pecknold’s commanding, intellectual songwriting and intricate, thoughtful compositions managed to rid my adolescent mind of any anguish I had compiled throughout the day, and I could focus on the road ahead of me, save for the occasional existential thought now and again.

With the gift of the car came a series of unavoidable events that come with growing older – graduation from high school, entrance into college, the required reading of what seemed like hundreds of poems and essays for my English degree, writing countless papers over the research of countless literary ideas, and finally, early graduation from college with said English degree – and afterwards, perhaps because I didn’t seize as much from the experience as I should have, I couldn’t help feeling as if I was ripped painfully down the middle, simultaneously reaching for the future while beckoning for the past to continue. Pecknold drew a similar conclusion for himself after touring for Helplessness Blues, and in turn, returned to college and took up several recreational classes to clear his mind, shortly afterwards returning to music once he realized those things didn’t help him return to a sense of peace as much as songwriting and composition did.

And now, six years after the release of Helplessness Blues and five years after sliding it into my car’s cd player throughout the stress of growing up and realizing personal responsibility, I know that if I tried to listen to Crack-Up while driving, it wouldn’t give me the same freeing feelings of independence, but hopeful wistfulness instead – Pecknold’s journey, while perhaps not able to be replicated or even fully understood by the next person, the emotions experienced throughout are at least, to some effect, relatable, and after a few trying years of my own I understand that due to living in a world so unforgiving and unfair, it seems necessary to indulge in one’s own thoughts and desires – while at the same time avoiding to some extent the pressures and recent events of society – in order to provide it with any form of worthwhile contribution. And, Crack-Up, beautifully cinematic and painfully thoughtful, might be Fleet Foxes most meaningful contribution yet.

Part of the reason why Fleet Foxes and Helplessness Blues (as well as their Sun Giant EP) were so highly regarded when they were released was due to their sheer accessibility while simultaneously expressing such intellectual and visually dense narratives; you could instantly be transported to the Blue Ridge Mountains where no one knows your name, or lost and starry-eyed on Mykonos, or be placed at the edge of the ocean with hope and wistfulness wound so tightly together you couldn’t tell which you were feeling. The music, pure indie folk at its core, evoked ‘60’s instrumentals and nostalgic tones, somehow managing to be soft and piercing in delivery. The lyrics were thoughtful, even prophetic at times, as Pecknold lamented his struggles so eloquently you’d think they were yours – and in a way, they were, for his writing addressed relatable topics, including growing older, pining after love, and the various idiosyncrasies that come with being a human being – one listen to “Montezuma” and you’ll notice they can nail all three within a few minutes.

Crack-Up, on the other hand, doesn’t seem geared towards immediately pleasing the masses, or inciting one same stirring feeling of warmth or acceptance for a packed festival crowd. Instead of being a prophetic voice, Pecknold takes the role of quiet (and at times not so quiet) observer, making his comments on the injustices of the world then stepping aside for someone of higher privilege to take command. And, when considering all that’s changed since the release of their sophomore album, listening to Crack-Up just makes sense, more if you consider the current state of affairs to be even a little bit askew, or if you find yourself pining for who you used to be. Even the title, which is taken from an F. Scott Fitzgerald essay of the same name, is a reference to the state of being broken, evaluating everything that has happened up to the point of breaking, and ultimately having to venture back inside yourself in order to come out whole, albeit shaken, on the other side.

Whether you take Pecknold himself, the world, or even your own experiences into consideration when listening is completely up to you – even just regarding Crack-Up as a purely aesthetic album filled with beautiful noise would surely be completely valid in Pecknold’s eyes – there’s that much happening all at once. Of course, there are moments where Pecknold addresses said social injustices – “Cassius, -” narrates his participation in protests following the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and “If You Want To, Keep Time on Me” as well as the title track both address post-election anxiety. All three, however, sound so incredibly heavy in terms of instrumentation and emotion and not easily able to latch on to in terms of a set melody or vocal line, solidifying his desire to not be that higher voice that guides others, and be more of a supporter of those who can do so more eloquently. Gone are the soft, colorful images of working in orchards and sitting in ragged woods – Pecknold instead places you at the edge of the jagged cliffs that appear on the album’s cover, forcing you to think rather than sing along with the melody so comfortably.

Though Pecknold has stated he doesn’t quite understand the over-analyzation of lyrics in music criticism, it’s incredibly difficult not to at least address them in Crack-Up, for they are incredibly and unbelievably beautiful – the main subject of the medieval, rustic tinged “Kept Woman” is addressed as a “rose of the oceanside,” and she’s asked to “widow [her] soul for another mile,” perhaps worn after years of being someone else’s possession. Pecknold claims she is not broken, but instead stronger than he, and, insisting he’s changed, claims they’re bound to be reconciled at some point in the future, revisiting that half-hopeful, half-wistful character once again.

Crack-Up is best, however, when Pecknold is caught up in his own emotions and possessed by real-world nostalgia, so taken with what he’s communicating that the instrumentals all tend to blur together into euphoria. “Fool’s Errand,” perhaps the cleanest and most evocative in terms of composition, are the first of the cinematic tracks, as the jolted, piercing instrumentals simulate galloping horses or crashing waves, while Pecknold’s vocals soar and glide in betwixt them. He is both enchanted by and disgusted with his desire to remain in his current state until he sees a sign, until his “sight dream” comes to mind – the chorus sang and supported instrumentally with such simultaneous chaos and frustration that it begins to sound like divine catharsis. It’s even better when the track has a moment of sudden epiphany – “On Another Ocean (January / June)” begins, as the title says, in January, with Pecknold riddled with suspicion and hesitation, then suddenly transitions to June, where all those questions are treated with sense of self-reliance where Pecknold screams into the void amidst blossoming instrumentals that, in one of the most beautiful phrases of the album – “I won’t bleed out/ if I know me” – back to emphasising the importance of self-indulgence in order to survive in a continuously changing society.

And of course, there’s the nine minute epic “Third of May / Ōdaigahara,” the track that is nostalgia epitomized, the track that is more for Pecknold himself than anyone else – and that’s okay, given just how much honesty and genuine emotion oozes out of every second. It is essentially a track detailing the close friendship of Pecknold and band co-founder Skye Skjelset, and details of him are everywhere, including the title (Skjelset’s birthday falls on May 3rd). It’s an anthem for friendship as well as personal responsibility – Pecknold is “only owed this shape if [he] makes a line to hold” – and both seem to be needed today more than ever.

Crack-Up, though not as immediately warm and inviting as its predecessors, still succeeds in evoking that sense of breathless admiration and intellectual emotion Fleet Foxes began with, as well as the feeling of being lost in time. Even if you’re fortunate enough to have never experienced your own crack-up, the search for something bigger and bolder than yourself is, for the most part, universal.

9.0/10

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photo by Sean Pecknold

Washed Out – “Hard To Say Goodbye”

Washed Out, also known as Ernest Greene, has recently announced the release of his upcoming album Mister Mellow, following his 2013 chillwave stunner Paracosm. “Hard To Say Goodbye” follows the recently released first single for the album “Get Lost,” and the sound is just as dreamy as ever, save for a few subtle tweaks, including more emphasis on funk. The new sound is a tad cleaner and clearer than his hazy, carefree past catalog, with the vocals more pronounced and the synths even more cutting and jagged than before, perhaps due to the theme of the new album – the meaning of boredom in a state of privilege. His use of orchestral harmonies intertwined between the arresting synth beats and falsetto vocal effects are euphoric, his own soothing voice overlaid like a sealant to a bursting, but stable, dependable foundation.

Mister Mellow will be released on June 30th.

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photo by Alexandra Gavillet

Toro y Moi – “Girl Like You”

Toro y Moi, also known as singer/producer Chaz Bear (formerly Chaz Bundick), will release his fifth full length album next month, titled Boo Boo. The album follows Bear’s 2015 release What For?, which swapped out his signature hazy 80’s synth instrumentals for jazz, funk, and even psych rock, strategically taking his aesthetic back a decade. His latest single “Girl Like You” has Bear returning to his house and dream-pop roots, with an effortlessly smooth, slinky synth composition, a retro piano interlude, and a half-human, half-automaton vocal track. The album is, as stated by Bear, the after-effect of trying to find yourself after years of hard work and success in such a grueling industry, as well as what you want for the future. As a result, his new sound is darker, more thoughtful, and tinged with something just personal and mysterious enough to keep indulging in the search for deeper meaning.

Boo Boo will be released on July 7th.

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photo by Patrick Jeffords

Album Review: Alt-J – Relaxer

If there was a singular detail that separates Alt-J from their modern contemporaries, it would have to be the immense thought and care that goes into crafting their specific narratives, often times only immediately accessible to a certain few. Their music is not designed to be a fleeting, faded sound to be heard in the background, but exclusively reserved for those who wish to isolate themselves, peirce its thick, compact flesh, and let the juices freely flow down their chin. Relaxer, the trio’s third full length album, offers the chance for this savage practice tenfold, perhaps even more than their past work. But, true to its name, it also takes the time to release some of the pressure in order to tell wonderfully dense and detailed stories, most of which deal with how people perceive the idea of love and lust, satisfaction and sadness, either as individual concepts or how they interact simultaneously.

Relaxer might be the most obscure and experimental album Alt-J has ever released, as well as the most sensual; it’s almost as if it exists as a perfect amalgamation of their first two albums, taking the moody unpredictability of An Awesome Wave and the delicacy and romance of This Is All Yours. The sensuality, however, is at times placed not in a forgiving landscape, but instead an glitchy, savage wonderland where all rules go out the window, and somehow, Alt- J more than manage to get away with it. In fact, it’s the blatant, brilliant contradiction of their graphic, emotion soaked narratives to the fantastical, effect laden sounds that keeps the madness from gaining too much momentum – their thoughtful minds stabilize their feet that so desperately wish to float into the ether.  Of course, that doesn’t mean their more bizarre thoughts don’t bleed into their creations every now and again, and the ones they’ve chosen to include this time around are their most perplexing and arresting to date.

“In Cold Blood” begins with a slew of binary, arresting, piercing and esoteric, as is their want. While the track sounds bright and energetic, a deeper listen and glance at the lyrics reveals that a man has been killed during a pool party, and that same positive energy turns frantic and chaotic, the horns and glitchy keyboards mingling together in some sort of demented, violent menagerie – and it’s absolutely mesmerizing. “Adeline” is, literally, about a Tasmanian devil that falls in love with a woman after watching her swim, but from the amount of care and passion in both the smooth, milky guitar and piano instrumentals as well as Joe Newman’s vocal swells, you’d think the devil were a complicated being with a highly sensitive, bleeding heart, able to feel such complex emotions as mankind. Again, the listener sees and hears the contrast and concurrent communication between the savage and delicate as the creature must turn away from the object of his desire, for their lives are far too different. At the end of his journey through his emotions, he wishes her well as the urges in his head and heart battle each other, expressed through a thick, dense forest of vocal samples and grandiose instrumentals. The trio even messes around with the Animals’ 1964 hit “House of the Rising Sun,” where instead of a man chained to the world of gambling and alcohol, his father is chained instead, and his mother can’t help but sew jeans to pay for his addiction. As a result it sounds even darker, completely furloughing the miniscule shard of hope the original managed to secure.

The focus on differing perspectives on love and lust is also very much prominent throughout Relaxer, in both its blatant and subtle forms. “Hit Me Like That Snare” is very much in the former category, and exists not only as the British trio’s most bizarre and uncomfortable tracks, but perhaps one of the strangest tracks in the history of alt indie music. After what seems like a cowbell induced orgasm, Newman delivers a vocal line that resembles a drunken, hysteric drawl, with as many euphemisms for sex you can imagine. “Deadcrush” exists in the middle, where Newman and Gus Unger-Hamilton tell us about their “dead crushes,” photographer Elizabeth “Lee” Miller and Anna Bolina, referring to Anne Boleyn. It’s a narrative that hasn’t been touched on much in the past, but this as well as the long, drawn out “Last Year” and “Pleader” are tracks that will only immediately make sense to a certain few, and at first glance, may be far too overwhelming to fully embrace like the others.

The magnum opus of the album must be “3WW,” as it seems to utilize Alt-J’s unique composition style found in Relaxer the most eloquently. Much like the idea of love itself, it is multi-faceted, sounding like a love song one moment and a glitchy, eerie nightmare the next, as it focuses on two separate, but intertwining perspectives. The plucks of guitar simulate the “wayward lad’s” soft, anxious footsteps as he leaves the comfort of his pastoral life to discover love, or at least offer a love “in his own language.” He wishes for something more substantial, for the words “I love you” have become worn with overuse like the “rubbing hands of tourists in Verona,” referring to those who have ruined the patina of the statue of Juliet in Verona, wanting luck in love. The instrumentals become more industrial and sterile as he learns the hard way that others’ ideas of love are not as sincere and meaningful as his – the girls that take advantage of his purity leave him a note the morning after their encounter, asking him with a laugh if it was his “first time.” The instrumentals become quiet and ashamed, but the boy repeats his desire to love another the way he thinks is the most substantial, his morals remaining the last pure, quiet breath into the corrupt world he left everything to experience.

Relaxer is at the least a deep dive into the highly functioning minds of three incredibly talented musicians and songwriters, at the most a strange, yet rewarding third installment of a musical project that will never be replicated.

8.7/10

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photo by Gabriel Green / big hassle

Japanese Breakfast – “Boyish”

Japanese Breakfast, also known as the musical project of Michelle Zauner, released one of the best and most emotional albums of the past year, expressing the pain felt after losing her mother to illness sound-tracked to thoughtful, jagged indie rock. A few weeks ago, she debuted “Machinist,” the glitchy, synth-heavy first single to her upcoming sophomore album Soft Sounds From Another Planet (which also has one of the most cinematic music videos of the year). It’s clear she’s taken another path stylistically and her second single reflects the theory tenfold, as she hangs up her space-suit to lose herself in a nostalgic doo-wop tune. Her vocals are velvety smooth and become almost transcendent in the haze of orchestral instrumentals – but the track has a bittersweet sadness laced in between the strings and harmonies, existing as an ode to feeling inadequate, just short of being the beautiful, complex creature that her lover wants her to be.

Soft Sounds From Another Planet will be released on July 14th.

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photo by Phobymo

Alvvays – “In Undertow”

Back in 2014, Toronto-based indie quartet Alvvays released their self-titled debut album, its jaunty, complex tracks like the comical, yet heartfelt “Archie, Marry Me,” and the edgy, emotional “Party Police” flawlessly expressing their own quirky, colorful brand of dream pop laced with shoegaze, surf rock, and everything in between. Now, three years later, the group is back with the first single from their upcoming sophomore album Antisocialities. “In Undertow,” evocative of shoegaze, is definitely heavier and more delicate than their past work, the most different being the softer vocals from Molly Rankin. It’s mellow and simple, with a stoic tone that only expands as the track plays on.

Antisocialities will be released on September 8th.

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photo by Arden Wray