The lead singer and guitarist of the Fleet Foxes, Robin Pecknold, is reputed to be a perfectionist, and at the band's appearance at the Santa Barbara Bowl a week ago, he lived up to the description, spending half an hour directly before the show walking around the stage in plain view, pointing, talking to roadies, making sure the slide projector was aligned with the screen in exactly the way he wished. When at last he and the five other Foxes took the stage, to a gentle swell of excitement and emotion from a crowd of perhaps two thousand people, he picked out a couple of riffs, then stopped to note:
"Okay now — let us earn your love."
Though Pecknold insists he's not a hippie, he and the whole band could hardly look more granola if they had just time traveled in from l969, with the scraggly beards, the long hair, the drummer's white shirt, the bassist's wool cap — you name it.
But the real giveaway is Pecknold's unabashed sincerity. This man is, by all reasonable metrics, a rock star, and yet he doesn't write about love, or sex, or drugs, or even rock and roll. He writes about sunlight, the ocean, orchards, golden apples, aging, dying, his wandering mind, winter, the men who move in dimly-lit hallways, and most of all, most repeatedly, union with an unreachable glory.
In the title song from the band's new record, Helplessness Blues, he sings:
I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me
Why does this impossible, ungraspable subject work as the overarching theme for a new band? Because the band illustrates it with their glorious sound, in faultless three and four-part harmonies. We hear the theme; even if we understood not a single word, we would feel at a gut level that yearning for union.
It's extraordinary, and yet a little frustrating too. There's something monkish about Pecknold's focus. (Fittingly, the slide show behind the band began with an image of an arched building from the Middle Ages, perhaps the Alhambra.) The music uplifts, taking us higher and higher, but without freeing us.
Near the end of the show, heading into an encore, I heard a young fan in front of me yell — a little hopefully — "rock and roll!"
Well, not exactly. It's more like choir music — but good choir music.
[pic from the Santa Barbara Independent]
Here's the title cut, as striking a popular song as we've heard this year: