You don't have to believe the hippy-dippy crap about "old souls" to wonder if the bearded young men from Seattle that lead the brand-new band Fleet Foxes aren't channeling some kind of ancient musical sage — like maybe early Neil Young or his sometime partners Crosby, Stills & Nash. The comparisons could continue — Mamas & Papas, anybody? — but they aren't really fair and should not come without a qualification, i.e., Fleet Foxes have released one of the best albums of the year.
What might trip people up is that while the instruments employed are traditional in rock and folk — acoustic and electric guitar, banjo, piano, tambourine, lots of tom drums — the emphasis is on voices. The band calls its music "baroque harmonic pop jams," and, outside of top-flight choral competitions, it's not likely that you've heard harmonies soar like they do on Fleet Foxes. Lead singer Robin Pecknold is practically mystical in the way his voice — so huge and yet controlled — finds a way to pierce your heart.
In many respects, Pecknold and his pals reject the shaggy, psychedelic aspect that marked the recent freak-folk movement. These songs are put together with a professional sheen and construction that's anything but loose. It makes for drama on a grand scale. Listen to the way the held-back instruments burst open and mimic a bright sunrise on the opening track, "Sun It Rises." The dramatic stops and starts of the heart-wrenching prodigal-son song, "He Doesn't Know Why," are breathtaking.
Lyrically, Fleet Foxes falls in with the folk tradition of dealing with and dwelling on nature. The sublime and ominous "White Winter Hymnal" has children — or is it birds? — marching through snow. "Meadowlarks" and "Blue Ridge Mountains" sound like they were written hundreds of years ago by writers who had never seen concrete.
Certainly some will carp that Fleet Foxes are too pristine and too clean for a rock or even a folk band. The rest of us will treat this masterly music the same way we would treat the sight of a grand cathedral of trees or a sun-drenched valley — with something close to awe. — Werner Trieschmann