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FLEET FOXES - Helplessness Blues

This band may call Seattle home, but its sonic kinship with the American South—in particular, Appalachia—has been well-chronicled. Guided by the congenial twang of leader Robin Pecknold, the band's debut LP (as well as their second EP, Sun Giant) made them Sub Pop's newest (and, some might also say, their unlikeliest) star signing.

It's not that there's much un-indie about their sort of music, but whether it's with college-radio-approved ramshackle creepiness (Bonnie "Prince" Billy or Bill Callahan) or arena-harkening widescreen rock (My Morning Jacket and Band Of Horses), few like-minded bands play a brand of Appalachian folk-pop as reverential as these Foxes. There is little modernity to songs like "White Winter Hymnal" or "Mykonos", both of which were steeped in time-honoured approaches—tones made decades prior. By not chasing a current zeitgeist, their music feels pure. Spiritual, even.

This has never been truer of the band than on Helplessness Blues. A few reviews have so far commented on this record feeling darker, but I would contend that it's not so much darker as more refined. This album dials back even the few AM pop detours of their past releases to create a remarkable distillation of their musical essence. It's the sound of them being them, and it's something you've got to admire—on the heels of a breakout 2008-09, the band refuses to either artfully complicate or commercially simplify their sound. The record oozes with welcoming confidence.

Even multi-part tracks such as the excellent "The Plains/Bitter Dancer" and the towering "The Shrine/An Argument" retain a buoyancy that makes them easy company. On the shorter side of things, their cup runneth over with highlights: "Montezuma", "Battery Kinzie", and especially the instantly gorgeous "Lorelai" are all stunners. Few things on this LP aren't.

Does anything measure up to the previous high watermark of those cascading harmonies of "White Winter Hymnal"? Maybe not, but Fleet Foxes don't seem perturbed by the challenge of surpassing it, and neither should you. Throughout this record, there's a level of comfort and trust in one's own capabilities that is completely at odds with its title. These guys are anything but helpless—and nothing here is gonna give you the blues.

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