The first 10: Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes

Graeme Thomson unearths the missing link between hymns, field songs and Brian Wilson

If, like me, you embrace the theory that the story of American pop music through the years has been told most persuasively using the simple medium of three or four voices singing in glorious harmony - think of the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Band (it's also, incidentally, the story of the letter 'B') and REM, not forgetting the Ink Spots - then Fleet Foxes already look well on their way to claiming a prime place in that exalted lineage.

The debut album from this widely touted five-piece from Washington state in the Pacific Northwest, who comprehensively stole the show at this year's SXSW, often seems to consist of nothing but voices; which is just fine and dandy, because lead singer Robin Pecknold possesses a wondrous one - rich, emotive, full of character - and when the rest of the band close in around him the results are truly spectacular: 'White Winter Hymnal', 'Meadowlarks' and 'Oliver James' all rise up into the air like great secular songs of devotion, emitting a soaring sense of grandeur and deep joy that can be felt viscerally but is almost impossible to convey through mere words.

This is music that travels from coast to coast (the brilliant 'Ragged Wood' actually sounds like a freight train rolling happily over the plains), pulling in at many of American music's most significant stopping points: old Baptist hymns; gospel; the Beach Boys' lysergic barber-shop; field songs; Phil Spector's wall of sound; twanging country shuffles; Mo Tucker's idiot-savant rhythmic heartbeat; skipping backwoods folk; balmy West Coast pop.

The ingredients are hardly revolutionary, but the results are spectacular. The way Fleet Foxes takes the familiar and subtly reconfigures it, like looking at your home town through a heat haze, reminds me of REM's Murmur - all those simple guitar shapes, sweetly naive melodies and mysterious voices, mixed together to make something quite profoundly beautiful, the appeal of which only intensifies the more you allow yourself to be dragged in. There's a pastoral purity, an age-old sense of wonder and reclaimed innocence running through this record which gives it a truly timeless feel.

It's certainly not an album ideally suited to the shuffle-happy iPod age. The song structures are often a little unorthodox: tracks bleed into one another, neither stopping nor starting, while 'Heard Them Stirring' is essentially just one long choral sigh. And although there is almost an embarrassment of melodic riches on display - 'He Doesn't Know Why' practically staggers under the sheer weight of its tunefulness - there is nothing so gauche as a radio-friendly chorus to be heard. Fleet Foxes is altogether too loose and elemental for that. Its cumulative weight suggests a rich tapestry of music, each tiny stitch and daub of colour vital to the overall picture.

Perhaps this is the band's greatest achievement, their ability to conjure up a remarkably unified sense of mood and hold it steady for over 40 minutes, utterly disregarding any claims on the intellect and, instead, opting for a sustained assault on the senses. They achieve their aim so successfully that the beauty of much of this superb album simply leaves you reeling. Fleet Foxes casts a bewitching, unfathomable musical spell that lingers long after the music stops.

Download: 'Ragged Wood'; 'He Doesn't Know Why'


Graeme Thomson

The GuardianTramp

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