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

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

Ulrika Spacek – “Silvertonic”

This Friday, Berlin-based quintet Ulrika Spacek will release their sophomore album Modern English Decoration, just a little over a year after their hypnotic, emotional debut The Album Paranoia. Their music is a moody, delicate concoction of 90’s indie rock (drawing inspiration from Pavement, Television, and even Sonic Youth), with sharp, indulgent specks of shoegaze, lo-fi guitars, and the two of the most addictive, relatable underlying concepts in music – angst and sadness. “Silvertonic,” along with the vast majority of the new album, shows those two ideas brilliantly and mercilessly, to the point where you need multiple listens to truly appreciate the amount of effort placed in balancing them out. The instrumentals are aggressive and brooding, then dips out towards the chorus save for bouts of swirling guitar and synth, in order to show frontman Rhys Edward’s soft, impassioned voice – as if finally succumbing to his own emotions.

Modern English Decoration will be released on June 2nd, but in the meantime, you can stream it here.

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photo courtesy of artist

TENDER – “Nadir”

With their addictive new single, London electro-pop duo TENDER have officially initiated my quest to find every half-pure pop, half-brooding track for the upcoming summer months. “Nadir,” the newest addition to their already impressive repertoire, begins with synth resembling plucks of sharp metal, then explodes into a multi-textured soundscape, the vocals provided by James Cullen soaked in reverb. Though it explores the emotions felt during a separation, the melancholy adds to the vibrancy, finding immense power in sadness.

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photo courtesy of artist

Alt-J – “Adeline”

Early next month, Alt-J will release their third and highly anticipated full length album Relaxer. The trio have already shared two stunning tracks from the record – the sensual and evocative “3WW” as well as the glitchy, horn and synth heavy “In Cold Blood.” Today, they’ve shared “Adeline,” a soft, atmospheric addition to what might be their most experimental album to date. Much like their entire discography, the track tells a specific story in carefully chosen, tender language, this time according to the band about a Tasmanian devil who falls in love with a woman after watching her swim. Of course, the lyrics can be taken literally or metaphorically, the latter perhaps easier to relate with considering that at its core, the track is about a lost or never realized love. Amidst swirls of mesmerizing, sorrowful piano, the Tasmanian devil, communicated by Joe Newman’s soft voice, wishes his love well, and watches her swim away, his inconsolable, bleeding heart expressed through the slowly expanding closer.

Relaxer will be released on June 2nd.

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photo by Gabriel Green / big hassle

TOPS – “Further”

Soft funk group TOPS have always made music that’s a little lost in time, a jangly menagerie of guitars that make your head bop, your fingers tap, and your heart a little warmer, though many of their tracks make use of heavier themes like nostalgia and wistfulness. “Further,” from their upcoming third album, follows the already released tracks “Petals” and “Dayglow Bimbo,” showing another side of their unique aesthetic –  a saccharine sweet breakup track that refuses to let the breakup happen. Jane Penny’s mournful, flinty voice expresses her simultaneous desire and distaste for moving on, as whispers of guitar and bursts of buzzing synth swarm her like a shoulder to cry on.

Sugar at the Gate will be released on June 2nd.

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photo courtesy of artist

Album Review: Mac DeMarco – This Old Dog

Over the years, Mac DeMarco has become a series of contradictions; he’s either the talented slacker, the goofy sentimentalist, or the rich bum, titles so securely attached that even the mention of his name triggers the smell of cigarette smoke. Being the extremely confident, carefree person that he portrays himself to be, he finds ways to make his cartoonish media derived image work in his favor, or, even better, disqualify his so called “slacker” persona entirely through his skillful, complex melodies and genuine, poetic lyrics. His first three albums almost perfectly follow the growth and maturation of a human being, complete with the musings of young suburban life, the idea of newfound fame, and the concept of love as well as all of its derivatives. His newest full length This Old Dog follows that succession with the deeper thoughts and desires that come with growing older, and expresses in more muted tones what seems to be DeMarco’s final form – his inner self, free of outside opinion.

The first thing you’ll notice about This Old Dog is that it is considerably quieter than DeMarco’s past work, both in the technical sense as well as an appropriate extension of what the album represents – wistful emotion, steady maturation, and coming to terms with things you’d rather just forget. It’s also necessary to point out how much of the album utilizes acoustic instruments and simple composition rather than purely relying on complex guitar melodies and atmospheric synth. Each track feels unbelievably somber yet strangely hopeful, a combination of emotions that never quite existed in DeMarco’s repertoire until now. The giddy, frivolous demeanor he assumed throughout the years which brilliantly offset the hazy, languid sound of 2, Salad Days, and Another One now also appears to have been a wall he built to put off writing about the demons that haunted him, one of which being the strained relationship with his father.

“My Old Man” expresses DeMarco’s fear of becoming his father as he grows older, his voice hung in a surreal, dreamlike state that contradicts the nightmare he explains. Closer “Watching Him Fade Away” is perhaps the single most heartbreaking song DeMarco has ever written, and it’s incredibly difficult to listen to his voice sound pained and teary-eyed as he explains just how hard it is to watch his relationship with his father dissolve into nothing, though he assures us that they barely knew each other. He sounds tired more than anything, as if he faced reality far too late, which makes it the perfect closing track. We all have to face our innermost demons eventually, and DeMarco shows us that its better to do it now rather than later. “Still Beating” even proves to fans of his goofy demeanor, carefree antics, and wacky behavior that “honey, [he] cries too/ you better believe it.”

Needless to say, the honesty embedded DeMarco’s composition and songwriting is the highlight on This Old Dog, and it’s absolutely beautiful.  “Dreams from Yesterday” is tender and delicate with a strange familiarity, his voice expressing through muted guitar that no amount of sadness can bring back your youth, nor the dreams you once had. “One More Love Song” utilizes the crackling falsetto croon of “Still Together,” and “One Another” is Jim Croce like, with upbeat vocals and colorful guitar plucks.” The title track assures us that DeMarco, now 27, isn’t about to forget all the wonderful things that will happen in the future.

It’s a far cry from singing about cigarettes, that’s for sure.

8.0/10

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photo by Coley Brown