Fleet Foxes is a progressive rock band in the same sense Gazpacho is, where what they’re getting at is a total environment or vibe rather than a particular baroque form of electric music with rock instrumentation. I read recently what I think is a good observation, that their third album, 2017’s Crack-Up, has an appropriate home in Nonesuch, which started as the classical wing of Jac Holzman’s Elektra Records, but in recent years has extended its reach to artful achievers in what we might otherwise think of as the rock world. It’s the right label for a band that doesn’t like to rush things. Their previous record, Helplessness Blues, was released in 2011, after which songwriter and lead singer Robin Pecknold, by then a rock star, decided to push pause and go to college and wait for the muse to revisit. It did.
In a rock world where everything is “post-,” Fleet Foxes shares with the other intelligent American bands of their era — thinking Spoon, Band of Horses, My Morning Jacket, Shearwater — a smart melodic sensibility and a complex vocal approach to its music, atop an intense but restrained musicianship. With a sound instantly identifiable, in its harmonies the band reliably draws comparisons with the Zombies, Moody Blues, and Crosby, Stills and Nash, and while I get it I don’t really hear it, maybe because I find Pecknold’s lyrics darker, funnier, better, or maybe because there’s no smack of the hippie, despite the hair, that so defined those groups. I think if anything Fleet Foxes taps into the reverb-drenched sound of 90’s Britpop, the adventurousness of the early 70s British folk scene, and the impressionistic poetics of Dylan‘s best work. Even while being on the inside there’s an outsider’s sensibility.
“Your Protector,” from Fleet Foxes’ 2008 self-titled debut, is like a puzzle you turn in your hands trying to figure out how it comes apart. I can’t really parse it, but I’m pretty sure it’s not a happy story, while the galloping, western-movie chorus is an inscrutable, spine-tingling chant difficult to forget.
As you lay to die beside me, baby
On the morning that you came
Would you wait for me?
The other one
Would wait for me
The live-in-studio version here shows the band in full flight, as part the second series in Nigel Godrich’s From the Basement program, and includes drummer Josh Tillman (aka Father John Misty) soon after he joined the group. There’s a sleekness to the work that speaks volumes on the meticulousness of the band’s constructions: the simplicity of the arrangement, the power in its dynamics, the harmonies. The air crackles and sparks.