Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Look Both Ways #3: Fleet Foxes Give CSNY Déjà Vu

With glowing four-part harmonies and bandying baroque counterpoint, the flannel-clad quintet Fleet Foxes invoke blissful summers, Baptist hymnal singalongs, toasty winter fires and cross-country car rides. And their self-titled debut album, released last summer to deafening praise, happens to sound a lot like the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young classic Déjà Vu.

Fleet Foxes and CSNY differ in that while the latter was a supergroup comprised of already-famous ’60s rock stars, Fleet Foxes are as green as the pastures their music conjures—a troupe of young friends, some of whom met in high school. While the spectrum of sounds and styles on Déjà Vu reflects the dispersive passions of its four geniuses, Fleet Foxes is clearly the brainchild of lead singer and songwriter Robin Pecknold; it sticks together like kneaded dough, even as it sags and soars from song to song.

Fleet Foxes don’t really do the electric-guitar-so-dirty-it’s-gonna-singe-your-trousers thing, as CSNY do on David Crosby’s nasty “Almost Cut My Hair,” the third track on Déjà Vu. (“Your Protector,” Fleet Foxes' most My Morning Jacket-indebted song, amps up the intensity to a comparable degree, but it does so without the guitar pedals.) Instead, think of the soothing warmth from Déjà Vu’s classic country twanger, “Teach Your Children,” plus the pulsating energy from “Woodstock” and “Country Girl.” What you end up with is music more akin to the CSNY album’s opening track, “Carry On/Questions.” It’s all resonant acoustic guitars, often with an electric tracing out a memorable melody over it; ethereal organ and piano; lush but articulate vocals; drums and bass that, while robust, are so delicately woven into the fold that they’re often felt, not heard.

The similarities between CSNY and Fleet Foxes aren’t only musical: Both groups are cited as leaders of their respective Americana movements, classic rock’s and indie pop’s ambassadors (respectively) to the roots music contingents of Appalachia and the western United States. But both bands are actually more mimickers than mountaineers. CSNY were multinational all-stars—Graham Nash hails from Britain; Neil Young is Canadian; Stephen Stills was a military brat born in Dallas, Texas; and Crosby was raised in Los Angeles by a cinematographer and his wife. When Fleet Foxes sing “Blue Ridge Mountains,” meanwhile, it’s as expert channelers of the Kentucky spirit, perhaps, but not as true Appalachians: this quintet hails from Seattle.

“Ragged Wood” might be the Fleet Foxes song that most resembles Déjà Vu, and it’s a strong candidate for the album’s best track. Like “Carry On/Questions” and “Country Girl” from Déjà Vu, this song has distinct movements—and each one relies heavily on thick vocal harmony. “Ragged Wood”’s first section is a folk-rock shuffle with a simple verse-hook format. The second starts at the end of minute three, after everyone but bassist Christian Wargo has dropped out. Building from just the bass, then some tom-toms, then a repeating electric guitar line, then sustained octaves on the organ, the second movement glides higher and higher on the wings of four cooing voices (“Lie to me if you will / At the top of Beringer Hill / Tell me anything you want / Any old lie will do / Call me back to / Back to you”). It evaporates altogether upon the striking of one collective beat—voices die out, organ fades and a cymbal rattles into silence. Where did the song go? Probably to the same distant world where Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young are forever asking those big “Questions” during the harmony-laden climax of their famous song: “Where are you going now, my love? / Where will you be tomorrow? / Will you bring me happiness? / Will you bring me sorrow?” If CSNY’s “love” is their music, Fleet Foxes have the answers.

A version of this piece first appeared as a column in the Feb. 9 issue of the Tufts Daily.

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