Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)

Almost four years ago, even before their first EP “Sun Giant” was released, I stood before  five bearded hippies at the Bowery Ballroom, transfixed by their lush nostalgic confidence as they buzzlessly opened for Blitzen Trapper. Nothing they have done since that night has been anything less than perfect. Their CSN harmonies, Van Morrison ‘Astral’ meditations and meandering California spirit is such an authentic relic of a bygone era, even among a sea of more popular revisionists Mumford and Sons, that the years that have passed since the debut have passed way too slowly.

The dozen songs on “Helplessness Blues” are about what you would expect- earthy epics that tend to rise and fall around the sublime vocals of still only 25 year-old Robin Pecknold. Already something of a studio perfectionist, these songs were recorded, scrapped and rerecorded a handful of times between Woodstock, Seattle and parts in between. From the stunning title track whose chorus “If I had an orchard I’d work till I’m sore” mixes the just the right amount of Johnny Appleseed pioneer spirit with earnest longing, to the bouncy slow build of “Grown Ocean” to the lush “Lorelai,” this album covers a remendous amount of ground very carefully. Like Wilco before them, the Fleet Foxes seem destined to make a long career of trying to understand who we are and who we wish to become. There is much to love here, and I’m guessing many who will grow to love it more with each passing year.

Low – C’mon (Sub Pop)

You know you’re getting old when you start saying to yourself “I haven’t seen this band live for 20 years.” Low is one of those great, quiet, enduring indie bands that rode the backside of the Nirvana revolution 20 years ago. Making music from Duluth, MN for esteemed labels like Vernon Yard, Kranky and Sub Pop the band has been consistently touring and playing for quiet appreciative crowds in clubs all over the world, making, at times, barely enough noise to elicit a sway in the room entranced by the ethereal vocals of Mimi Parker and the soulful intensity of husband Alan Sparhawk.

It has been years since I really dialed into a Low album but “C’Mon” has a few of the best songs of the decade. “Witches” is a big beautiful storm of cool that builds gradually, a subtle banjo groove keeping it anchored along the way, and the beautifully apropos “Try to Sleep”  whose “You try to sleep/Cause there’s never enough/Inside a dream/ You take a stand” floats along like a children’s song with just a hint of bitterness. Perhaps this band is acquired taste but after so many years I am thrilled that neither of us has given up on indie rock.  In the end Low always gets me high, and “C’mon,” recorded in an old church, infuses a kind of subtle spiritually into this beautiful minor masterpiece. For newbies please seek out their epic cover of Toto’s “Africa” on AV Club.

The Helio Sequence – Keep Your Eyes Ahead (Sub Pop)

helio.jpgBarely a month into 2008 and we already have a contender for the best record of the year. This is a soaring emotive affair filled with songs as ambitious as those of “War” era U2, and complete with an often oddly familiar sounding guitar riffs and vocals that almost allude to those of a much younger Bono. But having never seen the band live, it is hard to imagine how a two piece band can create songs at this scale. Unlike the other guitar and drum dominated duos like the White Stripes or Black Keys, The Helio Sequence creates complex song structures that remind you more of the shoegazing serenity of My Bloody Valentine, than they do of more stripped down and direct rock outfits. Like the great studio bands of the 70’s (Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, etc.), there is a purity and a clarity that seems refreshing in an age of electronica.

The ten songs on “Keep Your Eyes Ahead” begin with big rock anthems and end in the form of a quiet folky acoustic numbers akin to what you can hear sprinkled throughout the later career Replacements albums. The band is equally capable on both ends of the spectrum, capturing both the intimacy and emotion but making sure each carefully crafted song leaves enough room for easy joy. Like labelmates Band of Horses, this is a record for people who love melody and harmony, and appreciate bands who study the history of rock and continue to add to the legacy.
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