Fleet Foxes: Pastoral Melodies
"Come down from the mountain—you have been gone too long,” sings Robin Pecknold, singer and songwriter for Washington State’s Fleet Foxes. But do we really want to leave the idyllic place conjured up by the band on their astonishing first album?
I, for one, would rather not.
Raw American mountains, great green meadows, and torrential rivers flow through my ears when listening to Fleet Foxes’ eponymous debut album. They don’t just sing about the forests and its inhabitants; their voices echo out of every plant stem and each blade of grass. The five-man group’s beautiful, pure vocals herald the bright summer serenity of nature, their voices flying through the forests like fairytale ghosts. But in a moment the sound turns, and nature’s sublime and powerful face shows itself in strong guitars and rolling drums, as the music ascends up the rocks and soars over the treetops. Like nature, Fleet Foxes are full of wonders; their sweet harmonies are reminiscent of church choirs and conjure up a rustic version of the Beach Boys. It’s a sound that could not have come from anywhere but northwest America, with its pine cones and pine martens, red cardinals, and redwood trees.
One might say Fleet Foxes look and sound like their happy hairy friends Vetiver. That may be, but in his beautifully crafted songs for Vetiver, Andy Cabic’s hushed-down and honeyed voice reflects on more modern concerns than a life in the wilderness. Fleet Foxes’ lyrics, on the other hand, do not make a lot of sense to a rational ear. But their meaning doesn’t really play an essential role—the words are intended mainly to provide atmospheric color to the songs. Like sailor’ tunes, they are sung purely for the joy of singing. Fleet Foxes’ songs conjure images of glowing-faced families venturing up the mountain, whistling melodies full of enthusiasm, or farmers singing whilst plowing their fields. Songs for singing; songs for wandering.
Yet Fleet Foxes offer more than rustic tunes from their magic box. The combination of electric and acoustic guitar, cymbals, banjo, organs, mandolins, and drums is intriguing, alluding as it does to baroque music and giving an Old World patina to the songs—bucolic music, one might say. You can almost feel Virgil’s Bucolica or Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe glinting through the lyrics (but without the kinky animal sex). It is a magic place where Pan, the god of shepherds, whistles his flute and watches over the fields, groves, and wooded glens. Humans live among the sheep, worshipping nature with little songs far away from the city’s moral decay. Perhaps that’s why the band chose Pieter the Elder Bruegel’s Renaissance painting The Blue Cloak for the album cover. The Flemish painter drew great inspiration from nature, and was among the first to paint landscapes for their own beauty rather than as mere background scenery. Bruegel’s painting shows a pastoral scene with a gallimaufry of peasants jumbled together in a rural setting, most of them wrestling happily with anthropomorphic animals. Like the vignettes in bucolic poetry, the painting is composed of dozens of hilarious little stories, and this patchwork approach seems to be reflected in Fleet Foxes’ lyrics.
Witnessing Fleet Foxes live last month in Berlin’s Cafe Zapata was an even more intense experience than listening to their recordings: Robin Pecknold’s voice seems to emanate from a great green lung blowing life through the songs, sometimes like the wind softly brushing around the trees, sometimes ascending wildly over the mountains. Watching him sing, with his eyes screwed shut and mouth wide open, you feel like you’re seeing a river god launching out of the water, sparkling verdantly with wet river weeds. Pecknold’s unkempt locks and mangy beard do nothing to lessen the effect, and maybe, with such power inside him, it was wise that he played the whole gig seated stably on a solid old wooden chair. Singing was the fundamental ingredient in the band’s performance, and really it’s the singing that makes Fleet Foxes so special. From the band’s opener, “Sun Giant”—an entirely vocal tune where Pecknold, the drummer, the bass player, and the keyboard player sing in four-part harmony—the audience was struck into tantalized silence. The cascading vocals, golden harmonies, and strident rhythms beat along as the acoustic and electric guitars flowed out from the stage, washing the audience downriver, spellbound and smiling.
Fleet Foxes are currently touring throughout Europe with the band Beach House, who are promoting their new album, Devotion. Beach House are from Baltimore, home to fellow sonic experimenters Animal Collective. Whereas Fleet Foxes’ sound was vital and green, Beach House cast a much more somnolent spell. Fitting perfectly to the blazing heat of the Berlin summer day, their sublimely alluring sound whooshed over the audience, singer/organist player Victoria Legrand and guitarist Alex Scally waltzing over the stage like real-life ghosts. Legrand’s voice is unique in its shadowy tones, with hints of the haunted castles, whispering spirits, and romantic grotesqueness of gothic novels—though Beach House never quite enters the creepy territory of the Metallic Falcons or Matteah Baim, two equally gifted masters of the dark sound. The band’s synthesized tropicool samba rhythms and slow waltzes carry your body away on a briney breeze, and the lonely triangle tings add to the spooky atmosphere and make the hazy shoegaze experience complete. As she plays, Legrand sways to the dreamy hymns in her sparkling red circus bolero and moonlight trousers, feeding the supernatural experience and catching her audience in a mystical dream. Her hypnotic voice seems to intone ancient spells and romantic odes into the dark chambers of her gothic soul. Yet the lyrics seem at times a bit too obvious to be taken seriously—the ironic twist in the corner of her eye is plain to see.
Looking back, Fleet Foxes and Beach House make fitting bedfellows: while Beach House plunge deeply into the obscure corners of your mind, befriending you with your inner ghosts, Fleet Foxes go some way to reuniting alienated metropolises with the old spirits and past lives lived in the woods.
On the other side of the sonic spectrum are the Dodos, from Lafayette, California, who played at Magnet in Berlin’s Prenzlauerberg district a couple of days later. There was little room here for any worldly reflection. The Dodos’s live setup is a stripped-back affair; they build their sound from Meric Long’s looped guitars and vocals, at first soft and beguiling but then hammered into the audiences’ ears with Logan Kroeber’s intense, precise, shattering drumming style. Long loops his vocals through various effects pedals, does the same with his acoustic or electric guitars, and keeps building and building layer and layer of repeating sound, creating a mesmeric haze that the melodies strive to burrow through. But then, in the most intense way, the drums tear everything to pieces. They dance—or, rather, cataclysmically explode—through Long’s fuzzy looped sonics, creating the percussive maelstrom on which each song rides. Kroeber’s full-powered drumming attack gives each song brutal definition.
Live, the Dodos approach their songs very differently than they do in the studio: on record, the role that Kroeber’s drumming assumes is not as starkly aggressive and frenetic as it was in a small dark club off a wide dual carriageway in east Berlin. It seems that the Dodos’ musical philosophy runs along the lines of, why deliver the lead melody through a vocal, when you can smash it through on a drumkit? Even a full-scale xylophone is treated with violence, its even tones pounded aggressively. And in case the point has not been made clearly enough, a tin bathtub in which you might wash a sheep hangs at the back of the stage, ready to receive a thorough beating for most of the performance. There’s something painful about this particular choice of instrumentation—it seems to demand that you listen, while admitting that even if you do it’s not going to be easy. Still, it’s compelling, and unexpected—not the typical one-man-and-his-acoustic-guitar style that might pop up on a Natalie Portman–curated mixtape. It’s a sound somewhere between Jorge Ben’s bossa nova and Black Flag’s hardcore punk catharsis, or perhaps what Neil Young would sound like if he were remixed by uk drum-and-bass producer Mampi Swift.
So, in three days Berlin was treated to three inspirational new bands from the u.s.—each offering something different, but all united in a shared passion for sound. Go forth and explore…
Laura Flierl is a freelance writer based in Berlin.