Fleet Foxes go deeper but lose lus­tre on Crack-Up

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - GREG KOT

”The test of a first-rate in­tel­li­gence is the abil­ity to hold two op­posed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still re­tain the abil­ity to func­tion,” F. Scott Fitzger­ald once wrote. That line comes from a col­lec­tion of es­says ti­tled “The CrackUp,” from which Fleet Foxes took the ti­tle of its lat­est al­bum.

Fleet Foxes founder Robin Pec­knold finds op­posed ideas ev­ery­where he looks these days, and his songs brim with dense, deep anx­i­eties. On “Cas­sius,” in which syn­the­siz­ers throb like a headache be­fore an orches­tra sweeps in, he flinches at all he sur­veys: “Past my win­dow, out in the street/ Life makes short work of all I see.”

A few mu­si­cal threads con­nect to the band’s beloved self-ti­tled de­but in 2008, but the quin­tet is not liv­ing in the past. Back then, Fleet Foxes helped de­fine a mu­si­cal move­ment of 21st cen­tury bands who con­jured 19th cen­tury ideals and the pas­toral folk-rock of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Along with Mid­lake, Bl­itzen Trap­per, Bon Iver, Mum­ford & Sons and the Lu­m­i­neers, the Seat­tle band evoked a lost time with their soar­ing har­monies and bu­colic melodies.

Three years later, the band aimed for a more com­plex sound on “Help­less­ness Blues.” Though more pop­u­lar than ever — sold-out theatre shows and hun­dreds of thou­sands of al­bum sales — the band took a six-year break, in part so that Pec­knold could at­tend col­lege in New York City. Along the way, he pa­tiently as­sem­bled “Crack-Up” (None­such), an al­bum about dis­con­tent, lessons learned and re­la­tion­ships lost and re­newed.

With its po­lit­i­cal un­der­tones — “When the world in­sists/ That the false is so” — this a protest al­bum pack­aged in­side a sump­tu­ously or­ches­trated se­ries of songs. The mu­sic sug­gests pro­gres­sive rock as much as folk. In this re­spect, Pec­knold joins fel­low lapsed folkies such as Bon Iver’s Justin Ver­non (on “22, a Mil­lion”) and Joanna New­som (ev­ery al­bum since “Ys”) in ex­pand­ing genre bound­aries.

The early folk shad­ings ap­pear spo­rad­i­cally, with mo­ments in which the lay­ered in­stru­men­ta­tion fades and makes Pec­knold’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity more ex­plicit. The de­cep­tively gen­tle para­noia of “On An­other Ocean (Jan­uary/June)” and the hymn­like heal­ing cov­eted on “If You Need to, Keep Time on Me” work par­tic­u­larly well be­cause of this starker pre­sen­ta­tion.

Most of the songs are not nearly as im­me­di­ate, with elab­o­rate and of­ten pretty ar­range­ments that hold the lis­tener at arm’s length with too sim­i­lar tem­pos and spar­ing hooks. Pec­knold clearly has a lot on his mind, but he pays a price for stuff­ing all his ideas into suites such as the nearly nine-minute “Third of May/Odaiga­hara” and the three­part “I Am All That I Need/Ar­royo Seco/Thumbprint Scar.” The fussi­ness smudges the emo­tional trans­parency that made the Fleet Foxes’ mu­sic so breath­tak­ing. It re­mains an im­pres­sive band, but also a more re­mote one.

Fleet Foxes play Toronto’s Massey Hall Fri­day, Aug. 4.

KIRK MCKOY, TNS

Fleet Foxes back in 2012.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

"Crack Up" is the lat­est re­lease by Fleet Foxes.

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