Ever since the inception of rock ‘n’ roll, the most dedicated music fans have committed themselves to look beyond popular icons such as Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. Even after Bob Dylan brought that “old, weird” America to the forefront with John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, the names of artists like Mississippi John Hurt and The Carter Family were merely whispered with reverence, while “field” recordings of their music only exchanged hands in the back of record shops. Beyond the dedicated few, this obscure America remained largely unheard and unrecognized.
The sounds on these recordings (many captured on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Music) are the essence of the back roads and by-ways of America: tales of hardship and loss infused with the swamp’s lather, the airiness of the mountains, the grit of rural life. It is this truly American sound that Fleet Foxes attempt and mostly capture on their self-titled debut.
If there is one thing Fleet Foxes clearly do well, it is harmonize. Just like on this year's EP Sun Giant, these 11 pastoral tracks feature singer Robin Pecknold’s honeyed voice augmented with precision and beautiful concord. This is not the type of album you want to listen to while pumping iron. It evokes walks in the woods, picnics by crystalline streams, and the loss of innocence as spring segues into summer.
Although there is much to like about the album, it can be difficult to differentiate one song from another. There are too many mid-tempo ballads celebrating mountains and birds. After a few listens, it is difficult to recall simple tunes, just ghosts of whispered voices and sweet harmonies. Also, Pecknold’s voice smacks very similar to those of Jim James and Ben Bridwell. Although My Morning Jacket seems to have floated off to the ethers, there are some tunes here that could easily be nestled on a Band of Horses CD.
But these are tiny gripes, and the songs that hit home are powerful. “White Winter Hymnal” begins with a vocal round that evolves into a magnificent pop song that nods to both The Beach Boys and Fairport Convention. Not everything is sunny in Fleet Foxes’s world. In the cycle of nature, there is death and loss: “Michael, you would fall and turn the white snow red as strawberries in summertime” Pecknold mourns as the drums and harmonies smile around him.
Other standout moments include the tribal drums and striding tempo of “Your Protector” -- the biggest-sounding song on the album -- and the lilting chorus of “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song.” But the band saves the best for last with “Oliver James,” a tune that primarily features Pecknold on acoustic guitar. Stripped down to its essence, his voice is haunting and lingers long after the music stops. Like those backwoods voices on scratchy recordings, Pecknold and Fleet Foxes remind us of the fragile beauty of what we call Americana.