Back to the land

Pub date June 25, 2008
WriterTodd Lavoie
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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I hold no truck with keeping too firmly tethered to the here and now. A little let-go does the soul a world of good, and nothing beats floating off on a cloud of question marks as time and place melt from view. I already have the perfect soundtrack for the occasion: Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop), the debut by the Seattle band of the same name, could very well offer the deepest decade-leaps and blurriest geographic-muddles you’re likely to encounter this year.

In their quest to fuse pre-rock ‘n’ roll sounds with indie-rock sensibilities, Fleet Foxes don’t simply settle for 20th-century American Music 101. Rather, their time-travel extends all the way back to the Black Plague. Along with offering fresh takes on the smooth sounds of ’70s SoCal pop; the baroque folk whimsies of Crosby, Stills, and Nash; and the hillbilly twang of your great-great-grandpappy’s barn dances, the quintet is also more than willing to get medieval on your unsuspecting ears. Listen closely, and the odd madrigal flutters forth now and again. Little wonder, then, that the Pieter Bruegel painting on the album cover hardly feels like an anachronism. Instead, it arrives thoughtfully recontextualized, much like the pan-decade musical explorations the group pulls off so effortlessly.

Mountains, rivers, birds, and forests — these are the main signifiers of Fleet Foxes’ pastoral, pre–Industrial Age mood-making, along with plenty of references to family and death. On paper, most of their lyrics could pass for traditional folk songs. Translated to plastic, however, the words take on a different character. Wafting and drifting in goose bump–raising harmonies and vocal rounds cloaked in hilltop echo, they at times evoke an agrarian Beach Boys or a less lustful My Morning Jacket. Vocalist Robin Pecknold is endowed with an equally hall-filling tenor as that of MMJ’s Jim James, and fluent in a full range of ghostly falsettos, tear-jerking howls, and sweet rally cries — each has been steeped in delicious reverb by producer Phil Ek (Built to Spill). Combined with the remaining members’ soaring vocal arrangements and deft instrumentation, Fleet Foxes manages to somehow feel comfortingly familiar yet bracingly fresh and new.

From its wordless sighs-from-country-heaven introduction to the heartbreaking Ronettes melodrama of its chorus, "He Doesn’t Know Why" might be the band’s most immediately persuasive pairing of otherwise perfect strangers, musically speaking. It’s also the recording’s most full-blown rock moment, along with "Ragged Wood," a transcendent country-rock shuffle powered by Pecknold’s exhilarating mountain cries of "You should come back home, back on your own now."

Lest they leave us too anchored to the modern age, Fleet Foxes peel back the centuries without a hitch on the spectral lilt of "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song," a spooky madrigal in which Pecknold ponders, "Dear shadow alive and well, how can the body die?" in harrowing echoes while a single acoustic guitar mournfully picks away in agreement. Elsewhere, in their boldest brain-rattle of century-confusion, Fleet Foxes weld ancient Andean flute melodies to furious Led Zeppelin folk-stomp on "Your Protector," a heavier-than-heavy meditation on death hoisted aloft by wide-eyed shouts of "You run with the devil!" Fierce words, but I’ll lose myself in Fleet Foxes’ fractured tableaus any ole time, thanks.


Thurs/26, 9 p.m., $10

Bottom of the Hill

1233 17th St., SF