of Maine

Fleet Foxes, s/t

For a time, I found it easiest to articulate my disappointment and confusion about Fleet Foxes in dorky platitudes. They’re “Grizzly Bear meets My Morning Jacket as a wedding band,” they’re “the ‘NSYNC of indie-folk bands.” Et cetera. Neither of those are true, but they get at a fairly important point about my relationship with the band: I’m supposed to love them. Soaring vocal harmonies? Check. Rustic vibe tinged with electric guitar riffs? Check. The list probably goes on.

Only just now did I determine the, er, my actual problem with Fleet Foxes, or more particularly, their debut album. (I’m more partial to their first EP, which I’ve only heard once or twice.) They take most of my favorite tropes of my favorite genre, and use them as a bludgeoning vessel for melodramatic, self-pitying, and – most frequently – mediocre lyrics.

Most songs traipse through a strange milieu, of death and sadness looming and images of weapons and blood about. For the most part, it’s heavy stuff, but its impact is dulled by frontman Robin Pecknold’s delivery. On “He Doesn’t Know Why,” he reserves his largest cries for lines like “I didn’t understand” and “There’s nothing I can do/There’s nothing I can do/There’s nothing I can say/There’s nothing I can say/I can say.” The latter bit is essentially the songs chorus, and the wails – yes, a dead ringer for Jim James of My Morning Jacket, minus the reverb and any semblance of playfulness or perversion – are purported to be so intense that the rest of the song basically stops for it. This is a common trope of the album; the music serves the vocals, never the other way around.

No other track on Fleet Foxes gets my goat so much, but a lot of the other big rock numbers feel equally stilted. The five-minute “Ragged Wood” feels like three songs that have little to do with one another: it begins in a jaunty, almost rollicking rhythm; settles into a ruminous, extended bridge; and ends in two minutes of thudding, clattering drums and clunky rhymes (“Lie to me if you will/At the top of Berringer Hill”). The admittedly gorgeous “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” again loses itself in Pecknold’s bombast (“I don’t know what I have done/I’m turning myself ‘to a demon”), and “Quiet Houses” is built merely on a few vague (and, moreover, bland) lines and nothing more: “Lay me down,” “come to me,” I can’t make out the other one. (“Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” and “Quiet Houses” are up on the band’s Myspace page.)

If it’s not obvious, there’s something weirdly personal about my distaste for the band. I overstate their flaws because most of them bastardize the aspects of Fleet Foxes I do enjoy. And taking a step back, it’s easy to convince myself that most of these problems won’t apply to the band’s next album. (You would hope so, at least; with the rapturous reception their concerts and this album receive, they should have less to be so brooding and opaque about.) There’s not much shame in overshooting on your first effort. And forunately, the final quarter of Fleet Foxes is some of the band’s best work. “Meadowlark” is something between a forest hymnal and the atmospheric chamber pop of Beach House, and Pecknold doesn’t overplay his hand. “Blue Ridge Mountains” is the best of the album’s sweeping-melodrama numbers, held up by a tireless acoustic rhythm guitar lick. And Pecknold sounds more fragile and human on “Oliver James” than he does elsewhere here; a verse of tremulous whispers give way to the howls that pervade the rest of the song, and that one touch of restraint makes the journey a lot more appealing.

(Note: the “I” speak here won’t hang around so long, but the passion with which people write about Fleet Foxes makes me feel like such an outsider on the issue I take my qualms about them a lot more personally than I do other bands, generally speaking. I am also just insecure about my not liking them.)