Okay kids, today we’re going to stray a bit from our beaten path–a bit of off-roading, if you will. Now usually I talk about things that I like on this blog. This is pretty much my whole purpose in writing and posting here, to share with you what I am listening to now, what I listened to back then, and what associations I make between my music and my memories. I may make a few critical remarks every now and then about a song or an artist, and sometimes a song is associated with a bad memory, but for the most part you get to read about what I enjoy. But not today, my dear readers.
No. Today I’m going to talk about a band that I am (rather surprisingly) very interested in at the moment. But I’m also going to talk about their latest single, which (spoiler!) essentially creeps me the frack out! The band is Seattle’s indie folk band Fleet Foxes and the song is The Shrine/An Argument, which is the first single from their second and latest studio album, Helplessness Blues–incidentally nominated for the Best Folk Album Grammy award this year. And I’ll come right out now and say it, the Grammy nomination was definitely well deserved. The band features a mainly acoustic instrumentation of drums, mandolins, guitars, bass, and the mysteriously titled “multi-instrumentalist”. And they apply a heavy hand in the use of layered, harmonizing vocals that inevitably put me in mind of 1970s era folk rocks bands like Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, America, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. The only modern-day equivalents that I am aware of are The Civil Wars (who beat them to the Grammy) and perhaps Mumford & Sons, who may come off as a bit more rocking but employ the same emphasis on vocal harmony. I’ve been a fan of CSNY and America for years, and I’d probably rank Mumford & Sons’ Sigh No More as one of my top 10 albums of 2011. So you would think that Fleet Foxes would land smack dab in the middle of my bailiwick, right? Well… as I am coming to find out, Fleet Foxes is not here to make things easy on you.
There is no doubt that they are a group of extremely talented musicians, and the lyrics of Robin Pecknold are truly on par with some of music’s great songwriters. But their emphasis is on making something that feels right to them, not to their listener, and they purposefully set out to make this second album less poppy and upbeat that their first one (two words I would by no means have used to characterize that first album, by the way). Now some would argue, including yours truly, that this is right where the emphasis should be placed. If the artist doesn’t serve himself first, then how can he make something worth anything to anyone else? I may agree with their decision, but it doesn’t always make for easy listening. Beauty and harmony there is aplenty, but there is also a coolness about their work, a deep-seated nihilism, and a brooding desperation as well.
Which brings us to the magnum opus that is called The Shrine/An Argument. Oh I wanted to like this song, I truly did. And the first few times I heard it, I thought I did. The first six minutes of the song are essentially the bleakest Simon & Garfunkel song you’ve ever heard in your life (think Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme with occasional vocal outbursts of supreme frustration). From the opening chord you know this is not a happy song, but there is a pronounced exquisiteness that plays well with its desolate tension. It is harmonious and melodic and it lulls the listener into a false state of ease. And that is how they trick you. Yes, trick is exactly the word I want to use here. The first few times I listened to this song I was at work on my computer. Each time the opening of winding guitar riff and soft voice sounded peaceful, if sad, and I took note of the band and song names; filing the information away for later. I would then click back to whatever document I was working on and the song would become nothing more than background. True the song warms up a bit with some wailing guitar and crashing symbols, but it doesn’t last and the song eventually regains the quiet calm established at its beginning. This is The Shrine portion of the song and the name is appropriate to both its lyrics and its mood.
But in an apparent show of my sometimes goldfish-like short-term memory, I always seemed to forget that there is a second part to this song: The Argument. And let me tell you, it sure does live up to that name! Suddenly out of seeming silence, the discordant blaring of multiple horn instruments pierces the quiet. Screaming and shrieking, following no real melody or method, the horns sound like the dogs of a fox-hunting party are tearing apart their quarry. Violently shaken out of my revery with whatever task I was currently working on, my immediate thoughts were, “What the hell is this?!” I’d then flip back to the music player window only to be shocked to discover that this was in fact the same song that I had liked and noted only minutes before. And of course, this is what the band was going for. The stark contrast between the two portions of the song is not a new device in the world of music and Fleet Foxes works it here to great effect. It highlights both parts of the piece, making them both stronger if no less disparate, and ensures that the song will stick with the listener longer. (Yes, I know I said they played this trick on me more than once. But believe me once the message was received, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I always was more like the tortoise than the hare, anyway.)
Seeking out the video only increased my feelings of shock, foreboding, and ill ease with the song. Directed and co-animated by Sean Pecknold, brother to lead singer and songwriter Robin, it features a stylized animation that falls somewhere between shadow puppets and layered paper cutouts. The colors are muted reds, browns, grays, and golds. The imagery is undeniably striking and at times disturbing. But throughout the video there is an ominous presence as you watch a lonely (carnivorous?) antelope-like creature run away from one potential enemy after another. You wish for a happy ending, but you hold out little hope that you will get one. You know what is coming. You see the proverbial ax swinging over head, you just don’t know when it will fall. Now with that for an introduction, here is The Shrine/An Argument:
I’ve got to give Fleet Foxes major points on this song and its video for creativity, for style, and for talent. This band is practically bursting with promise and I always like to give credit where credit is due. But I just can’t get past the way the whole thing makes my skin crawl. It is like the cannibalistic flower mating scene in Pink Floyd’s The Wall or the Sea of Monsters in Yellow Submarine. The urge to shudder is just too great. It is a masterpiece, but I don’t think I want to put myself through it again.
On the plus side, while researching for this blog post I discovered that I really do like their eponymous first album–particularly their song White Winter Hymnal. It is easier on both the ears and the nerves. And the claymation video feels just as creative, without losing their signature sense of despair and regret. I may not be thrilled with everything Fleet Foxes produces, but they sure have got my full attention now.