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
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Fleet Foxes – “Fool’s Errand”

Next month, indie folk group Fleet Foxes will share their third full length album Crack-Up, their first official release since 2011’s stunning album Helplessness Blues. They’ve already shared the sprawling, masterful “Third of May / Odaigahara,” which was just as thoughtful and euphoric as everything they’ve ever created. Late last week the group shared the equally majestic second single “Fool’s Errand,” perhaps one of their most beautiful tracks to date. The instrumentals, full and robust, simulate galloping horses, while Pecknold’s enamored voice reverberates freely within them. He expresses his mistake in waiting for his “sight dream” – whether that be fulfillment, love, or some other otherworldly phenomenon – while simultaneously reveling in the time spent in limbo, explaining that he “can’t leave until the sight comes to mind.” The big, swooping instrumentals periodically dip down and settle into the shimmering chorus, like a soaring desert bird that lands into what it thinks is an oasis. Pecknold’s voice is almost prophetic, the large sound pointing towards a more thematic and stylistic approach for the new album.

Crack-Up will be released on June 16th.

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photo by Sean Pecknold

The Tallest Man on Earth – “Time of the Blue”

Kristian Matsson’s last full length release as The Tallest Man on Earth was last years bold, personal Dark Bird Is Home, which both showcased and solidified his talent and skill as an artist in ten beautifully lush and evocative songs. Now, the Swedish folk musician has released the intricate, stripped track “Time of the Blue,” which might just be his most gorgeous song to date. Matsson’s voice dances and lingers on top of meticulous guitar melodies, intensifying in sorrow and passion as he belts out the three magical words I love you as if it were an epiphany from an intense period of solitude and introspection.

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photo by Cameron Wittig

Album Review: Mutual Benefit – Skip A Sinking Stone

It’s been ages since I’ve posted a proper album review, and I’m so happy to start up the process again with the brand new Mutual Benefit album, whose music I fell in love with after hearing the brilliant and absolutely gorgeous debut album Love’s Crushing Diamond, released back in 2013. Jordan Lee creates the sort of soft, atmospheric, baroque folk music that deserves to be contemplated and understood, and Skip A Sinking Stone is absolutely no exception, which, ironically, makes this album review somewhat premature. However, Mutual Benefit also has the unique ability to completely encompass the listener and make them part of the delicate, placid world that Jordan Lee bends over backwards in creating, which, in turn, puts the noise and destruction of the real world on pause.

Skip A Sinking Stone is seamlessly presented in two equal parts – the first half being a sprawling orchestration of the excitement and anxiety of life on the road, and the second being the soundtrack to Lee’s life in his home of New York City, which remains incredibly intimate and melancholy in comparison. In fact, opener “Madrugada” and the seventh track “Nocturne” function as thesis statements for these contrasting themes, considering the lush, ornate instrumentation and embellishment of the former and the quiet, Debussy-esque emotion and contemplation of the latter. While some critics may debate that the first half of this album lacks in emotion, tracks like “Lost Dreamers” – which seems to evoke the same sort of infatuation that enveloped Lee’s past work the most – and “Closer Still” have more feeling packed into their short duration than some indie folk artists have in entire albums. “Not For Nothing” is the last track before this intense shift in thought, also being the track most out of line with Lee’s past work, sounding more like the work of a simpler musician rather than the impassioned artist that brought us Love’s Crushing Diamond as well as the standout track “Advanced Falconry,” a complex, yet still incredibly subtle ballad I still revere to this day as being one of the most thoughtful, gorgeous songs I have ever had the honor of listening to. However, despite its simplicity, it demonstrates Lee’s ability to experiment and not linger within his aesthetic, which he must know by now is tried and true.

The second half of the album is much more introspective and calm, beginning, at least for me, with the haunting, distant track “Many Returns,” where Lee’s voice sounds gorgeously strained and yearning with passion, transforming it into a lush, dreamy soundscape. Although, that is where most of the fault lies with Skip A Sinking Stone, that it is sometimes far too vague and personal to relate with, and it is easy to become lost in the swells of synth, guitar, and menagerie of orchestral instrumentals and lose sight of what the album truly means. Nevertheless, it occurs rarely and sparsely, and even the tracks that fall victim to this are chock full of emotion, especially “The Hereafter,” perhaps the most perfect closing that this album could possibly have. Lee’s voice has never been more soft or delicate, which is only elevated with the melodies of the piano in the background. Through many of the tracks are arguably worthy of the standout title, “Skipping Stones” is well worth your while, as it accurately portrays Lee and Mutual Benefit as it is in reality, a peaceful companion to the journey, the destination, and the growth that occurs in between.

7.7/10

 

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photo courtesy of artist

Mutual Benefit – “Lost Dreamers”

I’ve realized over the past few weeks that it has been far too long since I’ve posted anything even remotely relating to the genre of indie folk music, and that just simply ain’t gonna fly. So, you can imagine my delight when I heard that Mutual Benefit (also known as Jordan Lee), who is still relatively fresh from his absolutely stunning 2013 album Love’s Crushing Diamond, is all set to release his brand new LP Skip A Sinking Stone. Lee released the first single for the album “Not For Nothing” a while back, and now, he has shared “Lost Dreamers,” a lush, sprawling, instrumentally dense piece. Despite the melancholic, yearning emotions of his past tracks like “Advanced Falconry,” this one in particular is optimistic and warm towards the topic of love, which is giving me some ideas for this album as a whole.

Skip A Sinking Stone will be released May 20th.

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photo courtesy of artist

Album Review: Lord Huron – Strange Trails

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When I first heard of folk band Lord Huron, I was browsing the aisles of a record store aimlessly until I came across the captivating landscape that covered their debut album Lonesome Dreams. Despite the age-old saying “don’t judge a book (or in this case, an album) by it’s cover,” I liked the image so much that I bought it on a whim, without even listening to the songs. I took it home and spent time with it, and came to realize how honest and beautiful their songs were, and how they all seemed to suspend in a world ruled by the western land, the sea, and everything quaint and meaningful in between. In their sophomore album Strange Trails, Lord Huron exits that blissful, simple world and instead takes time to invent a brand new one, filled with colorful energy and newer techniques.

Strange Trails journeys through this fresh world and explores a more uplifting, tenacious narrative still obsessed with ancient sounding western themes, despite the fact that the album maintains the themes of heartache. The album has a hiccup at the beginning where it feels repetitive, and it doesn’t even truly begin for me until the track “La Belle Fleur Sauvage,” where I can hear their old sound but with a sense of something new and cultivated. In Lonesome Dreams, the instrumentals consisted mostly of acoustic, wistful arrangements, but in Strange Trails, there’s a broader use of instruments, with a layer of reverb to bring it all together. There’s also a more extensive use of experimental styles, like the almost psychedelic, eerie sounding track “The World Ender.” It has a noir feeling that’s absolutely stunning, and the vocals are not at all what you’d expect from a folk band, not that it’s a bad thing. “Meet Me in the Woods” has that quintessential feeling that I got from Lonesome Dreams, and because it’s almost like a blast from the past, it cleanses the palate and brings back that dreamy aesthetic they perfected in the last album. “Fool For Love” also captures the same feeling as Lonesome Dreams single “Time To Run,” while also bringing in some newer techniques to the table. “Way Out There” is declarative and passionate, and shows off both uplifting vocals that mention the title of the album and utilizes delicate, western sounding instrumentals like mandolins and violins, which seem to sum up Strange Trails‘ overall aesthetic.

As I listened to album, I came to notice that the new world that these songs amass is a bigger one for sure, and it takes a few times to truly understand this narrative in full detail. It can be an exhausting listen for new fans who are not familiar with the band’s ambition and passion, but for the many that are familiar for Lord Huron’s love of story-telling and characterization, this album is a wonderfully gorgeous effort.

7.0/10

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photo by Josh Sanseri

Album Review: Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear

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Since the release of his debut way back in 2012, Father John Misty, a.k.a Josh Tillman, has been quite busy. He got married and – feeling a sense of new found clarity and sense of enchantment that only marriage can bring – set out to write a record about love and compassion in a way that was genuine and thoughtful. Of course, this album was anticipated to be world’s different than his debut since adopting his quirky moniker, Fear Fun, which was more of a psychedelic romp in the haze of folk-rock. Tillman knew this, which is why he didn’t want to write his own experiences with a personal subject in such a way that was generic and overly sappy, like a Disney movie over saturated in saccharine. In an interview with Pitchfork, he says “I’m so afraid of being misunderstood that I don’t give people a chance to understand me in the first place,” and, as a listener, we have to respect that despite this, he manages to create gorgeous, lush sounds that perfectly encapsulates these feelings. Starting off the album with the title track, Father John Misty establishes the content for the vast majority of this album right away – his wife Emma. Honeybear has to be a pet name of some sort, but this track is far from cheesy. Tillman’s voice swoons and swells, giving it a drunken, whimsical feeling that only gets drunker as the album proceeds. “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” is the first folk song that shows its face, and it’s all about the first night he spent with the woman that would soon become his wife. The instrumentals dance with Tillman’s upbeat, sweet voice, calling his wife by name and begging her to take his last name, seeing as though “dating for twenty years just feels pretty civilian.”

Based on these lyrics (and, basically the ones that encompass the whole album), it’s clear to see that Tillman’s intense writing skills and his brawn from his experience as the drummer of Fleet Foxes hasn’t waned in the slightest. “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” gives an honest recollection on the theory of what love actually is, while “Strange Encounter” is rife with falsetto and passionate vocals. There’s humor and whimsy in his writing, like in “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our House,” which is about a dismal one night stand, and “True Affection,” a song about his annoyance with technology and how it limits our view of love and the world around us. And of course, there’s the sarcastic ballad “Bored In The USA,” where frustrations with the hypocrisy and materialism in America are portrayed in a four minute rant. Almost everything – the housing market, organized religion, healthcare, and education – are addressed, along with the ironic inclusion of a laugh track. Sure, we laugh, but underneath these words, it seems wrong. There’s a hidden layer of despair and disappointment underneath what’s heard as humor, and it’s absolutely brilliant. Another recurring theme in this album is the way the instrumentals sway and loom over Tillman’s gorgeous, passionate voice. “Nothing Good Ever Happens At The Goddamn Thirsty Crow” sounds like Tillman should be hunched over a tattered microphone in a dusty old saloon, with him gyrating and singing, eyes closed. The lush instrumentation is one of the key factors in this album being such an amazing one, simply because it’s clear that steps were taken to ensure that this sort of sound doesn’t get overtly sappy. In fact, it’s messy and sloppy at times, which only adds to the theme of love and it’s unpredictability. Overall, it’s a magnificent second album, where Father John Misty finds a way to make love sound like something real.

9.1/10

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photo by Emma Tillman

The Tallest Man On Earth – “The Dreamer” (SAMURAII Edit)

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I don’t usually post remixes of songs to this blog, but I thought I would make an exception for this one. I love The Tallest Man On Earth’s 2010 alternative folk classic “The Dreamer,” and the way it sounds so nostalgic and warm, almost reminiscent of a simpler time. This remix does that ideal justice, and doesn’t overwhelm the delicate nature of the song. There are soft beats to match the subtle, but powerful guitar riff this song is famous for. I’ve been listening to both this version and the superior original version of it this whole week, and I just can’t get them out of my head.

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Monday Mixtape – Autumn Equinox

Today (September 22) is the Autumn equinox! Where I am, the weather is finally starting to cool down and allowing me to drink coffee and wear long sleeve shirts without making me suffer from heat exhaustion. This calls for a playlist! This week’s playlist includes the likes of Cloud Castle Lake (who I’m absolutely obsessed with at the moment), Foals, Fleet Foxes, and a little blast from the past with Simon & Garfunkel.

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Band Appreciation Friday – Daughter

We are the wild youth

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I first heard about indie folk band Daughter when their single “Landfill” was released about two years ago on their debut EP, and right when I heard it I knew I had found something beautiful. Lead singer Elena Tonra provides shaky, weary, yet gorgeous vocals that perfectly convey the depressing, somber feelings that each song brings, and seems to flush out every dark emotion and demon that seems to envelop her mind. They released their debut album If You Leave last year, and it can only be described as a deeply personal and extremely evocative album. “Winter” starts off the album on an obviously solemn note, but there’s a staggering beauty that remains constant and bleeds out throughout the whole album. In “Smother,” Tonra basically puts her soul out for everyone to see, even sweetly singing “I’m sorry if I smothered you, sometimes I sometimes wish I had stayed inside my mother, never to come out.” It’s  incredibly regretful and depressing, but it’s the genuineness of her voice and the sincerity of the instrumentals that makes it more beautifully melancholic than blatantly dark. “Youth” is the stunning single from If You Leave, and it’s the impressive guitar riffs and well-written lyrics that makes it so meaningful. After all, if there’s anything that Daughter does well, it’s definitely finding meaning in such simple (and not so simple) things. Compared to their other songs, “Youth” is the most upbeat, despite it’s humorless demeanor, and it’s the masked reality that makes the song worth listening to. “Still” and “Lifeforms” explore more of an atmospheric sound as it plays around with deep, ethereal beats and pulsating guitar. “Human” highlights Tonra’s voice and the amazing instrumentals that other band members Igor Haefeli and Remi Aguilella provide her with. It’s true that often times her voice seems measly and hushed, but in reality the music expands it considerably. “Shallows” ends the album with a delicate, yet eerie sounding ballad that includes the album’s title in it’s lyrics, and overall it gives the album a feeling of sincerity along with sort of a cliffhanger for the next one. Yes, Daughter is a band that relies on the feelings of sadness and hopeless desperation for just about all of their songs, and often times these feelings can create a sort of lull that bores people after a while. However, Daughter manages to convey these feelings with a thick layer of authenticity that keeps these emotions fresh and fantastically enticing.

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