A fleeting sensation: Fleet Foxes come to Minneapolis

By Peter Walters

This summer I bussed tables at a restaurant in Chicago. I worked 12-hour shifts scraping plates, carrying stacks of glasses, wiping tables and sneaking cigarettes when I took the trash out back. What’s important about this little anecdote is not that I wasn’t allowed a smoke break on a 12-hour shift (I’m pretty sure that’s illegal), but that my stolen moments outside prompted a newfound appreciation of the great outdoors. It came as a pleasant surprise, then, when my friends picked me up one day and introduced me to a few guys who share the same passion. It wasn’t their beards or flannels the grabbed my attention. I couldn’t see those that day. Instead, I heard four harmonized voices telling me their life story. More specifically, their lives in the summer, in the spring and in the natural world. I guess this would have been strange if they were actually in the car with me, but alas, it was only the title track off of their 2008 EP, “Sun Giant.”

The Fleet Foxes owned me that day. “Sun Giant” was my first taste of the band that would become my summer staple. The tracks on that EP are fleshed out with mandolins, violin bows drawn across electric guitar strings, walking bass lines and simple drum parts that hold everything together, without stealing the lime light from the vocals. Fleet Foxes have a knack for blending simple sounds to compose intricate songs, with the organ, bass, drums and acoustic guitar forming a stage for the clean electric guitar parts and falsetto voices to dance around each other.

The instrumentation is a display of their songwriting prowess, but let’s not let ourselves get distracted. This Seattle based quintuplet can sing. And while their reverb drenched vocals have inspired comparisons to the likes of My Morning Jacket, the two should not be confused. Lead vocalist and songwriter Robin Pecknold picks out harmonies that would make a church choirmaster scramble for his organ confused and excited. Christian Wargo on the bass and Casey Wescott on the keys throw their voices into the mix as the music drops out, forming mid-song a capellas. The lyrics paint pictures of green hills, valleys, trees, forests, brothers, lies, and death.

This summer, the band followed up “Sun Giant” with the release of their first full-length album, “Fleet Foxes,” under the Seattle based Sub Pop label. It was produced by Phil Ek, who brought us albums from indie rock greats Built to Spill and The Shins. The album builds upon what the EP began with even more great tunes. Stylistically, the two are nearly identical, the only difference being cleaner drums and improved production. In other words, music snobs hear fewer flaws in their five- piece stereo systems.
Production aside, it would be inaccurate to say that the album has any standout tracks on it. This isn’t because the songs aren’t good; it’s just that there aren’t enough bad tracks to contrast the good ones. “White Winter Hymnal” and “Ragged Wood” are the upbeat start to the adventure that takes us to the top of Beringer Hill and eventually to the “Blue Ridge Mountains.” Along the way, there are run-ins with demons, wanderers, and the woman of the woods. Like the Bruegel painting on its cover, the album is haunting in its complexity.

Hearing it all come together on stage makes you appreciate their talent. Not long after hearing “Sun Giant” for the first time in my friend’s Explorer, I was presented with a chance to see the band in action. The Fleet Foxes were playing the Pitchfork Music Festival. I was able to scalp a ticket at the last minute, getting nice and close to the stage as several fans and soon-to-be fans stood quietly, waiting for another band to finish their set. Robin sat down in his folding chair. Christian, Casey and Josh Tillman grabbed their instruments and made jokes about the jumbotron. Girls gawked at babyfaced Skye when he grabbed his guitar. After a quick sound check, they opened with “Sun Giant.” The vocals were spot on and the quality of the concert made it easier to praise the albums as true representations of their musicianship.

The moral of the story: it was all a great escape from bussing tables. Naturally, I was excited when I saw they were coming to Minneapolis this fall. I was also pretty disappointed to find out that the tickets were already sold out at the beginning of September, a full month in advance. But luckily for you and me both, they’ve added a second show. So go discover Fleet Foxes-especially if you work in a restaurant.