Monday, January 12, 2009

Album Review: Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes

The debut album from Seattle’s Fleet Foxes seemingly came out of nowhere to quickly become one of the more critically acclaimed albums of 2008. While many compare the album to The Beach Boys’ classic Pet Sounds (with its earthy feel, rich harmonies, and consistently great songwriting) simply confining their sound to this is both an injustice and simply inaccurate. Fleet Foxes confidently combine indie folk, Baroque pop, and even elements of Medieval music to create a wholly organic sound that will grow and flourish from your speakers. The band is led by Robin
Pecknold who resembles Tom Hanks’ character in Castaway in his unkempt appearance, but more significantly by being completely immersed and in touch with the environment around him (which I’ll explain more later on). Although Fleet Foxes is a five-member band, the other members essentially orbit around Pecknold by backing him instrumentally (guitar, bass guitar, piano, drums, and the occasional mandolin) or vocally (with staggering harmonies).

With this self-titled release, Fleet Foxes have created a stunningly fresh sound for modern music. When we think about past artists that are credited for having pioneered a new sound for rock/pop, the majority did so by skillfully implementing new songwriting techniques, mixing up instrumentation roles, or by using the newest technological advances. Whatever path they took, most of them were intending to capture the sound of that particular era. We have seen this over the past 50 years of rock and continue to see it today. Take for example the Arcade Fire, who over their first two albums have written very
anthemic, thunderous songs that can be said to embody the general dissatisfaction with the Bush-era United States. Or take LCD Soundsystem, a musical vehicle that implements electronic instruments alongside guitars and drums to mirror the technologically inundated lives we live. What’s most astonishing about Fleet Foxes is that they are pioneering a new sound for rock not by drawing from today’s world, but rather from a past world. As we listen to these solid, reverb-drenched songs, it’s almost as if we’re listening to an echo that was first generated centuries ago rather than the sound of music being created today.

One of the most remarkable aspects of listening to music in general is its ability to act as an escapist medium. Music has the ability to take us out of our hectic daily lives and into a different, more desirable environment whenever we want to go. As we listen to music, we constantly choose different spaces to inhabit. This space can be familiar or unfamiliar, cheerful or mournful, densely layered or incredibly desolate. More than almost any other album in recent years, Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut makes you feel as if you are being swept away to a new, entirely different environment than the one most of us live in. As we listen to the album, we feel as though we’re following the band through a rural, unpopulated landscape. Throughout the album we find ourselves marveling at a beautiful sunrise (“Sun It Rises”), strolling over a mountain pass (“Tiger Mountain Peasant Song”), and eventually walking by a river valley and rescuing an abandoned baby who floats beside us in a cradle (“Oliver James”).

Moreover, the Fleet Foxes have created a piece of work that invites us in to explore for 40 minutes, in the end leaving us ultimately empowered by its splendor. It’s difficult to predict how successful the Fleet Foxes' next album will be (which is slated for a late 2009 release). However, what is certain is they have already created a career-defining classic, one that will be cherished and revisited by avid music listeners like myself for as long we still want music to help take us away from the mundane and into the marvelous.

Key Tracks:
White Winter Hymnal
Ragged Wood
Oliver James

Final Verdict: 9.6

Fleet Foxes - Ragged Wood

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Album Review: Destroyer - Trouble In Dreams

Destroyer is a solo project created and embodied by the wildly talented, Vancouver native Dan Bejar. Since 1995, Bejar has used Destroyer as an outlet to carefully craft and refine his mighty and enigmatic songwriting tendencies. Although falling primarily under the genre of independent rock, Destroyer definitely should not be confined to a single sound. His influence stems from an assortment of past, well-grounded musical roots. Listening to Destroyer, one can hear the musical theatricality of Bowie, the cryptic and poignant sonic touches of Pink Floyd, and the stream-of-consciousness lyrical approach of Dylan. While partially borrowing from these musicians, Bejar adds his own signature to the mix. Some may initially be put off by Destroyer’s sound, especially those who find his vocals a bit too whiny or unsettling. However the deft listener will give Bejar time to settle into their bloodstream before casting him aside, and will most likely be rewarded for doing so.

Trouble In Dreams marks the 8th LP release from Destroyer, an album that fans of the band will quickly understand is more of an extension of the form of his last release than a movement towards new territory. In 2006, Bejar moved away from his past psychedelic and wildly over-ambitious sound to create an album that brought him back down to Earth with a more traditional rock band sound. Akin to Dylan’s classic Highway 61 Revisited, Destroyer’s Rubies (my favorite album of 2006) was the sound of a fully-fleshed out band producing rootsy rock that backed the delivery of incredibly literate and thought-provoking lyrics. With Trouble In Dreams, Bejar uses the same formula and often achieves equally successful songs.

This album is essentially a sequel to the aforementioned 2006 release, picking up right where the last left off. Take for example the opening moments of the first track “Blue Flower/Blue Flame”. Bejar begins the album by exhaling the opening line “Okay fine, even the sky looks like wine,” as if he is continuing a thought from earlier on rather than starting a clean slate. Throughout the album, the lyrics continue to puzzle and intrigue us as they always have. In the same vein as some of rock’s past great poets, Bejar has the ability to write incredibly visual and potent lyrics and support them with music that more often than not matches in quality and effectiveness.

One of the biggest draws for me with Destroyer’s sound is the unique role that his guitar serves throughout the tracks. Many of Bejar’s songs use a distorted, super-charged guitar sound that both completes and complements his vocals in a very lyrical fashion. The guitar tears through the mysterious environment that his voice paints and gives us incredible hooks to latch onto, essentially serving as a second voice to steer us through the unfamiliarity of the rest of his sound. Songs like “Dark Leaves Form A Thread” and “My Favourite Year” prove to be good examples of this formula.

While many songs on his newest album could definitely have warranted a spot on his 2006 masterpiece, there is no denying that Trouble in Dreams stumbles in spots. “Shooting Rockets” simply becomes a repetitive bore, while “Plaza Trinidad” is a bit too over the top for its own good. “Libby’s First Sunrise” is a decent but ultimately lackluster closer, ending the album with an ellipses rather than an exclamation point (or even a definitive period). However, more often than not Dan Bejar succeeds in creating a solid follow-up by using the recipe that he concocted with his masterpiece
Destroyer’s Rubies. After all, what did we really expect? Sequels are rarely ever as good as their predecessors.

Key Tracks:

Dark Leaves Form A Thread

My Favourite Year

Introducing Angels

Final Verdict: 7.4

Destroyer - Dark Leaves Form A Thread