Here’s an observation from a lifetime of listening to music. The older you get the more likely you will hear something that sounds like something you liked when you were much younger. Usually what you hear much later in life is not as good or as captivating as what you heard when it was new to you or original. Over time this makes people lose interest in new music and they get stuck in an era which leads to stagnation (think of the uncle who wears only ’90s styled clothes).
I was in college when I learned to appreciate vintage rock acts like the Beach Boys and Crosby Stills Nash & Young (CSNY). Looking backwards became something of a game as bands like R.E.M. made looking back to the ’60s for inspiration fashionable. 30 years ago, much of the new music I was listening to could be traced back to the Beatles or the Byrds. Influences would go in and out of style, but at some point after grunge, it seemed everyone was discovering Neal Young. Suddenly bands like Mumford & Sons and Band of Horses had unearthed a treasure trove from the past and re-introduced it to us. Fleetfoxes were one of those bands putting a new twist on old sounds.
The first time I heard “Sun Giant”, I thought I was hearing CSNY. It turned out to be one of a few gems on the debut Fleetfoxes EP called Sun Giant. It was easily was one of the most beautiful acapella vocal harmonies of 2008 and would have made CSNY proud.
Fleetfoxes is made up of five members, most contribute to the multi-part harmonies much like those of the Beach Boys. Add to that some of the rustic nature of CSNY and you have a modern day folk/alt rock update of what surf music might sound like if it went into the woods. In some ways Fleetfoxes takes the scruff of old Southern Rock from bands like Credence Clearwater Revival, smoothes it out and adds the lyrical sensibilities of the postmodern Pacific Northwest. The resulting music is both light and weighty and free of synthesizers and studio gimmicks.
When Fleetfoxes appeared in 2008, they had released an EP that was followed quickly with a self-titled LP. The one two punch kept them on the college and alt rock charts for more than a year with songs like the beautiful “White Winter Hymnal”.
It was the harmonies lead by Robin Pecknold that gave the Fleetfoxes its distinctive sound. In a time when real singing was giving way to post rock angst, it was refreshing to hear something that was a clear throwback to the Beach Boys, but through the filter of a modern lens.
The typical Fleetfoxes song is often a delightful pastoral composition aided by simple arrangements and straight forward production. Generally optimistic in tone, there is nevertheless a sad undercurrent thanks in part to a big baroque production dominated by drums (from Joshua Tillman later known as Father John Misty) and haunting harmonies. Acoustic guitars keep it clean, simple and timeless. There are not many contemporary bands today that have the potential to appeal to Baby Boomers as well as Millennials like Fleetfoxes. Crosby Stills Nash and Young would be so proud.