Fleet Foxes - First Collection 2006-2009 - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Fleet Foxes - First Collection 2006-2009

by Kyle Kersey Rating:10 Release Date:2018-10-26
Fleet Foxes - First Collection 2006-2009
Fleet Foxes - First Collection 2006-2009

I’m not one for abusing adjectives so let’s keep it simple: if I had to describe Fleet Foxes’ music in a single word, it’d be “beautiful”. I know that doesn’t do their unique sound justice, but I think it’s a good starting point for discussing what separates Fleet Foxes from the rest of the artists in modern folk and the modern music industry at large.

For those not in the know: Fleet Foxes is a Seattle based chamber folk group headed by singer-songwriter Robin Pecknold. Produced by Phil Ek (see The Shins, Modest Mouse, and Father John Misty), their 2008 debut album Fleet Foxes and single “White Winter Hymnal” thrust them into the indie spotlight and – thanks to Pentatonix (*shakes fist like an old man*) – every High School choir concert ever.

First Collection 2006-2009 is a box set containing the entirety of Fleet Foxes’ first three official releases - The Fleet Foxes EP (2006), Sun Giant EP (2008), and Fleet Foxes (2008) – as well as a few basement demos, B-sides, and other knick-knacks for fans to sink their teeth into. It provides a glimpse into the development into one of the best groups of this musical generation, even if it does so in reverse chronological order, beginning with their eponymous debut album and ending with the strangely pop-centric Fleet Foxes EP.

Released within two months of one another, Sun Giant and Fleet Foxes are like identical twins and, thus, can be examined together. The two releases account for the first half of the 30 song set. They’re a wonderful introduction to the band’s trademark chamber folk sound, a sound drawn from the pivotal crossroads folk found itself at in the early 60s, transitioning from soulful performances of traditional folk song to the age of singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan and Woody Gutherie. After all, you can’t tell the story of folk music without Dylan’s poetic genius, but you also can’t leave out the various popular interpretations of faceless traditional songs.

Fleet Foxes are the best of both worlds. On a sonic level, they embrace pristine vocal harmonies and mesh them with original storytelling and a historical slant. This is evident on Sun Giant, of which the first song – aptly titled “Sun Giant” – resembles a modern take on “Down to the River to Pray” off the soundtrack for O Brother Where Art Thou? Both are acapella songs filled with hushed vocal harmonies, and a spiritual tint to their lyrics.

In fact, a lot of the band’s music is steeped in some sort of mythology. The story of a baby washed upstream to unexpecting parents, “Oliver James” contains allusions to the story of Moses. Pecknold mentions the sirens of Greek mythology on “He Doesn’t Know Why”, while the namesake of “Mykonos” is a reference to the Greek island where Zeus defeated the Titans.

And if Pecknold isn’t referencing established mythology, then he’s writing as though he’s forming his own mythology. Partially due to the poetic nature of Pecknold’s songwriting – his writing has a tendency to emulate 19th century poets like Thoreau – and partially because of the band’s rural ethos, each story sounds as though it’s been passed down for generations. “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” is a great example of this, not only because the title has a traditional slant to it, but because of the story it tells; a regretful murderer visiting the grave of his victim and confronting his actions.

The band’s brightest moments are their most ambitious. “Blue Ridge Mountains”, “Your Protector”, and “Mykonos” all follow similar patterns: a slow choral build up that swells to a dramatic climax, showcasing the band’s musical chops and foreshadowing their eventual turn towards the more dense and progressive approach of their most recent release, Crack-Up. “Blue Ridge Mountains” in particular stands out amongst the bunch, a wistful expression of love towards Pecknold’s brother, Sean, sung over pastoral instrumental accompaniment.

By contrast, The Fleet Foxes EP is an anomaly in the band’s discography. Released two years before Sun Giant and Fleet Foxes, it’s more McCartney than Dylan. All the instrumentally dense melodies and soft-spoken harmonies of their later work are absent, replaced by punchy percussion and uptempo, pop-friendly grooves. There are harmonies, but they're more in the real of the Beach Boys than Crosby, Stills, and Nash. “In The Hot Rays” is even borderline funky. Pecknold croons “I want my baby back” on “So Long to the Headstrong” and sings fondly of a romantic High School relationship on “Textbook Love”. It’s strange enough to hear Pecknold sing the word “baby” like a blue-eyed doo-wop singer, but dare I say that on a sonic level, This reminds me of early 2000s Coldplay. Which isn’t to say it’s bad. Early 2000s Coldplay is the best Coldplay (I will gladly defend A Rush of Blood To The Head and X&Y as good albums to their horde of online detractors). But it’s still a jarring departure from modern Fleet Foxes and an interesting look into the group’s adolescence before they’d found their sound.

From here, the collection transitions to four stripped-down B-sides. My personal favorite of the bunch is “False Knight on the Road”, which relays the child-like story of a child’s conversation with the devil (or the titular false knight). There’s also the nostalgic pleasings of “Silver Dagger” and the plaintive poem “Isles”. While not as ambitious in scope as the more fleshed-out album cuts, these acoustic-only B-sides are perhaps the greatest testimony to Pecknold’s songwriting. Strip back all the grand instrumentation, all the multi-level harmonies and you’re left with stories. Intimate stories. Really great stories. That’s what folk is all about. That’s what Fleet Foxes are all about. Telling stories.

The collection ends with four basement demos, all of which are interesting from a contextual perspective (the “He Doesn’t Know Why” demo sounds suspiciously like “Quiet Houses”) but they aren’t going to exactly replace the studio versions. The bread and butter of this collection are the band’s studio work and simply put, Fleet Foxes early work is a thing of beauty.

Overall Rating (2)

5 out of 5 stars
  • Rated 5 out of 5 stars

    Great review as always Kyle. Their first LP was likely what brought me (and my family) back to the indie music listener fold in earnest. I relied on XM radio for new music for a long time until hearing this album in full. Then with the onslaught of streaming I could suddenly listen to everything

  • Thanks Mark! I missed the XM radio craze by a few years, but I had a similar experience with their first album. Before I found Fleet Foxes, I was obsessed with my dad's 70s and 90s based music collection. They're one of the groups that turned my attention towards my musical generation.

  • In reply to Kyle Kersey
    Rated 5 out of 5 stars

    Wait, is the XM Radio craze over? I think they are buying Pandora so you can listen to random songs you don't want to hear via digital satellite.

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