On KEXP's Double Take, two of our intrepid writers team up to explore some of the great collections of music given to us throughout history. This time around, Jasmine Albertson and Martin Douglas turn back the clock a decade along with Fleet Foxes, whose stellar box set First Collection: 2006-2009 was released on Friday via our friends at Sub Pop.
First Collection: 2006-2009 kicks off with the eleven tracks that comprise Fleet Foxes’ seminal debut self-titled album. The record ruled 2008, making a major impact on the music scene and ushering in a renaissance of folk in popular music. What a lot of the bands that followed (looking at you, Mumford & Sons) lacked was the kind of precise craftsmanship that songwriter and frontman Robin Pecknold spent years honing in on. In interviews with the band from that time, there’s a clear feeling of perfectionism emanating from Pecknold & co. The band admits to practicing vocal techniques before every show and making an effort to steer clear from the easy structure of verse/chorus/verse, in favor of stitching together multiple songs to create something unexpected.
“Timeless” is a word that’s easy to stamp on albums that we retrospectively favor and know have grown well with age, but even in 2008, upon first listening to Fleet Foxes, it was understood by most everyone that this record would stand the test of time. Without any knowledge of the band, the record sounds like could’ve been released at any place in nearly any era. They could’ve shared a New York stage with Simon and Garfunkel in 1966 or a California stage with the Beach Boys or grown out of Britain’s celebrated folk scene. As a Seattleite, it almost doesn’t feel right to claim them as my own because they’ve never felt like Seattle. Unlike their modern local peers like Modest Mouse, Pedro the Lion, and Death Cab for Cutie, they’re missing the layer of gloom and despair intrinsic to Seattle music.
The record kicks off with an a cappella chant of what could be a bygone chapel tune but is actually a chant Pecknold and his siblings made up about a red squirrel. Quickly, a bevy of twinkling guitars barrel in to lead “Sun It Rises” into a reverb-heavy folk epic. Evoking the feeling of a sun rising, the song shepherds us into Fleet Foxes' world. That world, we find out, is a rusticly lush and deeply layered adventure, with stories that may be difficult to follow but conjure up colorful images nonetheless. The whole album is such a cohesive and masterful unit that it’s difficult to pick highlights but “White Winter Hymnal” has the most cathedral-sized harmonies, “Your Protector” uses woodwinds and evocative lyrics to tell a pictorial story, and “Ragged Wood” changes directions so many times that even after repeated listens it’s difficult to recall where it’s going to go.
The all-important album art helps quite a bit with placing the music in a bygone era. Taken from a painting titled Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a 1500’s Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painter, the art depicts a scene in which humans, animals, and objects, offer literal illustrations of Dutch language proverbs and idioms. From far away it looks fairly quaint and innocent but as you look closer you can see some rather dark things happening. This a perfect analogy for the songwriting on Fleet Foxes. At first listen, it’s all gorgeous harmonies and beautiful instrumentation but a deeper look at the lyrics shows darker material including numerous allegories of death and the devil.
Fleet Foxes is an immersive kaleidoscopic quilt of a record. A quilt both because of its patched-together song structures but also because of it’s warm, rustic quality. Putting the record on is like snuggling into a cozy blanket that’s been in your family for generations, continuously passed down without ever losing its meaning or quality. In 10, 20, or 30 years, I can’t imagine Fleet Foxes feeling any differently than it did in 2008 and because of that the album deserves a place in the canon amongst other timeless records like Pet Sounds, Rumours, or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Let’s jump back a little in time. Before the surprise hit of Sun Giant, before the 9.0 rating on Pitchfork and everything — the rapture and the headaches — that come with it. Before the epic sophomore album and the major label deal that followed. Even before the band scored a spot opening for the Shins in Portland in 2007. Back when in our little corner of the continental United States, two childhood friends who started a band found out there was already a group called the Pineapples and had to come up with a different name. The Fleet Foxes were born, and their name was eventually altered, probably because the principals realized there were already way too many “the” bands.
There are more than a few songs on Fleet Foxes’ demo that carry the AM Gold vibe of future member Christian Wargo’s Crystal Skulls than the rustic, cherry wood finish of the work the band is now internationally beloved for. The organ-led shuffle-and-bounce of “Textbook Love,” the retro prom night boogie of “So Long to the Headstrong,” and the faux-spaghetti western “Anyone Who’s Anyone” are the biggest reflections of the early Crystal Skulls influence and direction of the band. For those who are hearing the band’s demos for the first time in this box set, it’s fun to go back and trace Pecknold’s progression as a lyricist from using schoolyard come-ons and singing “and the beat it goes on” to his present-day work.
If you happen to fall on the side of Fleet Foxes’ early adopters, you’ll more than likely feel more than a little twinge of nostalgia listening to demo standout “In the Hot Hot Rays,” with its chiming, autumnal feel in spite of its lyrics being set in the dog days of summer. Pecknold’s underlying, career-long fascination with mortality peeks its head, wondering what the dead man sees while kids play in the river that flows from the fire hydrant.
“Icicle Tusk” is the song on the demo which serves as a harbinger for Fleet Foxes’ future work, replete with block harmonies, a solitary guitar line, and twinkling glockenspiel. The verses build and the wordless chorus soars; it’s very folksy but not drenched in patchouli oil. Pecknold delivers a stirring prospector’s murder ballad built around a killer’s souvenir. The song is resplendent with his penchant for imagery and literary monologue, lyrics coalescing perfectly with music in a way that is classic without feeling arcane. Which, of course, ends up being Fleet Foxes’ entire modus operandi.
Jasmine mentioned feeling a little apprehensive claiming Fleet Foxes as a Seattle band because their sound belies location or era. She’s right. Listening to the band’s crystalline, shimmering instrumentation and harmonies, the clarion lead vocals, and old world poetic lyrics of Robin Pecknold, there’s no way a listener in the future could determine when and where these recordings came from without the benefit of Google.
But in our little corner of the continental United States, those who shelled out $10 for their hand-packaged demo CD or stumbled upon their Myspace page (the latter a clear signifier of era) were collectively in awe of their immaculately crafted songs, recorded by one of the greatest rock producers from our region, Phil Ek. Local blogs praised the band to the high heavens. EMP Sky Church was packed for their Bumbershoot 2007 performance. I waited in line for half their set and couldn’t get in.
Instead, I overheard a conversation between two scenesters, with one saying to another they’d “at least become as popular as the Cave Singers.” Turns out they weren’t too far off the mark.
“If there was no harmony then it would have no purpose to exist” — Robin Pecknold in a 2008 interview.
Robin Pecknold is a genius with harmonies. It’s the entire framework around which Fleet Foxes is built. Which is why it’s so fitting that the mainstream world’s first intro to the band starts with a choral a cappella refrain reverberating the impeccable harmonies through an empty hall for the first minute and a half of Sun Giant. When the mandolin enters, you begin to wonder if you’ve stumbled upon an old record of your grandfather’s but the release date says 2008. Peculiar.
For some background, Sun Giant was recorded after their self-titled debut album and before they signed to Sub Pop so their resources were far slimmer than their following releases. What, or who, they did have is Phil Ek. The legendary Seattle producer had worked with a number of prominent indie bands including Built to Spill, The Shins, The Halo Benders, and Band of Horses. Ek was a family friend of Pecknold’s and the producer backed the band by lending them equipment, helping with their first demo The Fleet Foxes, also included in the new box set, and producing Sun Giant. Quickly, the band caught the ear of Sub Pop, who released their Sun Giant EP on February 28, 2008, with Fleet Foxes quickly following it up on June 3, 2008.
The 5-track EP was originally pressed solely so that Pecknold, Skyler Skjelset, Casey Wescott, Christian Wargo, and Nicholas Peterson would have something to sell on tour, and was said to not be representative of their ambitions at the time. Little did they know that the EP would catapult them to national attention and create their still-reigning top hit “Mykonos.” While it may be more modest than their following full-length, Fleet Foxes, the EP is impeccably crafted, showing off their attention to detail and skillfulness at building songs that eschew traditional songwriting structures in favor of building two or three mini songs that grow into one.
"Drops in the River" is the biggest reflection of this non-structure structure. The song very slowly and patiently builds, gradually adding instruments and constantly ebbing, building, and dropping — like a river. Fleet Foxes do this often — name their songs off of the sound their trying to emanate. We see this on Fleet Foxes album opener “Sun It Rises” as well. Album highlight “Mykonos” uses impressionistic lyrics and an incredibly catchy melody to bring the EP’s energy up. With the dramatic rocking chorus and dense harmonies, “Mykonos” would’ve been a perfect fit for another Fleet-named band: Fleetwood Mac.
The lush and inventive songs that make up Sun Giant display the band’s mastery of multifarious composition, majestic harmonies, and evocative lyrics. It’s no wonder that 10 years and three albums later the band is still just as beloved and revered, with their quality never wavering.
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