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Opinion | Fleet Foxes are comfort food for your ears

The group’s brand of indie folk has a quietly calming effect. Their new album, ‘Shore’, provides serenity during these troubled times

Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold performing at the 2018 Mad Cool Festival in Madrid.
Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold performing at the 2018 Mad Cool Festival in Madrid.

Like comfort food, welcome and uplifting in times of stress, you can feel a sense of well-being gently wafting over you as you listen to Fleet Foxes’ new album, Shore. It’s not that the band, led by frontman and lead singer Robin Pecknold, always sings happy and upbeat songs—Fleet Foxes’ songs almost always have an aura of melancholia about them but there is something about the way they inject their brand of indie folk music with pop that makes their songs comforting and calming.

Shore is Fleet Foxes’ fourth full-length album, coming three years after they released Crack-Up. Typically, its 15 songs are short, rarely exceeding 5 minutes, but they sound mellifluous even when the themes aren’t joyous or upbeat. In Sunblind, the second song on the album, Pecknold pays touching tribute to a legion of musicians who influenced him but are no longer alive. He mentions the singer Richard Swift, who died in 2018; John Prine, the American folk singer who succumbed to covid-19 earlier this year; Bill Withers, who also passed on this year; and great musicians such as Judee Sill, Elliott Smith and David Berman, all singer-songwriters who died prematurely.

There are also references to older musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding. Sunblind is a tribute song like no other. Gentle and delicate, it’s a song that can easily persuade you to put it on repeat and, oddly, make you feel sad and happy at the same time. But then that is a singular attribute of Fleet Foxes, a band formed in Seattle in the mid-2000s; its alumni includes Josh Tillman, who left the band for a successful solo career under the stage name Father John Misty.

Their albums may be different from each other but Fleet Foxes’ tunes quickly become memorable and remain unaffected by the passage of time.

For instance, the band’s third album, Crack-Up, released in 2017 after a six-year hiatus, was a bit of a departure from their first two albums. Crack-Up isn’t easy to access—it is like an experiment in what you may call “progressive folk", with its intricate and layered sounds and lyrics that reference Spanish painters, social strife and deep, introspective angst. It is a wonderful album, though, and a “grower" that becomes more alluring with every repeated play.

Shore, on the other hand, is instantly likeable. Released on 22 September, it’s the quintessential autumnal album with a mood mix of melancholia and happiness. It’s also possibly their most accessible album after their self-titled debut album in 2008.

Shore is also accompanied by an hour-long film to which the album is set as a soundtrack. It depicts scenes, mainly natural landscapes, from Washington state. Watching the film is a novel way to listen to the album; the experience becomes even more calming.

What’s unique about Shore is that Pecknold composed the music and lyrics for all the songs during the covid-induced lockdown—for the first time, none of the other band members was involved. Instead, a host of other musicians have contributed, either by way of vocal harmonies or instruments.

In fact, on the first track, the short tune titled Wading In Waist-High Water, you hear Uwade Akhere, not Pecknold. Akhere is a Nigerian classmate of Pecknold, 34, who enrolled at Columbia University for an undergraduate programme during the band’s hiatus between 2013 and 2016. Other musicians who have contributed include the American singer Kevin Morby.

Whatever the reason for using non-band members for Shore, it is in the end an album that offers a rare sense of serenity in these troubled times. Listeners will be grateful for that.

Fleet Foxes are usually labelled indie folk, a genre that came up in the 1990s when indie rock musicians used folk music traditions, such as acoustic guitar melodies, with contemporary rock music sounds. The pop sensibilities that they bring to their albums and performances make the Foxes’ music stand out. So, for instance, you can get glimpses of both—pop sounds that remind you of the 1960s- and 1970s-era Beach Boys as well as the music of Fairport Convention, the British folk rock band formed in the late 1960s by musicians such as the singer and guitarist Richard Thompson.

But though such influences may be discernible, Fleet Foxes’ compact songs are packed with lustre. The instrumentation is often intricate and nuanced. For an outstanding example of this, listen to White Winter Hymnal, from the Foxes’ debut album. That song is less than 3 minutes long but it is astonishingly anthemic. Fleet Foxes’ influences seem to be drawn from rock’s heady 1970s era, from early-era folk, as well as from the more contemporary lo-fi generation of bands, including ones that are classified as shoegaze. It is easy, therefore, to segue from the Foxes’ music into the music of lo-fi experimental bands such as Yo La Tengo, or even into the alternative country territory of bands such as Wilco or My Morning Jacket.

But then, to do justice to the Foxes, a playlist made up entirely of their own material, culled from their four full-lengths and a couple of EPs, would be the ideal aural stress buster.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.


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