The Seattle-based band staked their claim in the indie-folk revival earlier this year with Sun Giant EP (QRO review), but unfortunately, Fleet Foxes seem to have learned the wrong lessons and taken the wrong routes in their course. Fleet Foxes begins to hew away from the alt-country-edge of Sun tracks like “Mykonos”, and instead heads down the choral, hymnal ways of the opening title track, giving it an almost ‘Christmas carol’ feel.
“Sun It Rises” opens Fleet on an interesting promise with its folk choral echo, and while not overwhelming, serves well as an opener. But it is the following “White Winter Hymnal” that is really what this record could have been. More ‘traditional’ new folk, “Hymnal” has not only spiritual overtones, but also group singing more reminiscent of classic holiday songs by The Kingston Trio or some such. Certainly an unusual avenue, it does work in its way, however.
But unfortunately, that tack is used again and again on Fleet, to lesser results. The stripped “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” is a sad moan but not that interesting, and while the following “Quiet Houses” is a little more active, it’s still not amazing. The ‘Christmas chorus’ effect is somewhat better when laid over the alt-country of “He Doesn’t Know Why” or the grander ambitions of “Your Protector”, but it goes even higher on the subsequent “Meadowlarks”, a track that’s just not really worth listening to.
The thing is, Fleet Foxes showed they could do other things on Sun Giant, and there are still hints of it here, yet the band has trouble fully delivering. The alt-country processions of “Ragged Wood” and “Blue Ridge Mountains” are strong, but both slip a bit when they get slower; at least “Blue Ridge” has some ominous overtones to help it out. The choral-folk instrumental “Heard Them Stirring” works as an instrumental, but it’s not a bridge from one place to another. Fleet does pick up at its end with finisher “Oliver James”, an interesting throwback to sixties prog-folk.
In many ways, Fleet Foxes is something of a divisive record, sure to appeal to some tastes, and sure not to to many others – and many a great record have been that way. What’s unfortunate is that it didn’t have to be; there have been signs of greatness in other directions on both Sun Giant and Fleet, and “White Winter Hymnal” shows the amazing record that could have been.
MP3 Stream: "White Winter Hymnal"